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Quantifying N leaching losses as a function of N balance: A path to sustainable food supply chains


Growing public concern over agricultural nitrogen (N) pollution is now reflected in consumers’ food choices and shareholders’ resolutions, causing rapid changes in global food supply chains. Nitrate (NO3) leaching represents the primary N source for groundwater contamination and freshwater ecosystem degradation. However, simplified science-based indicators are still lacking to facilitate improved N management practices at the farm-level. We conducted a global analysis of published field studies to evaluate N balance (N inputs minus N outputs) as a robust predictor for NO3 losses. Using 82 studies (1110 observations) for rainfed cereal crops in temperate regions, we 1) quantified the response of NO3 losses to changes in N balance for major rainfed cereal crops while accounting for environmental and management variables; and 2) assessed the feasibility of improving water quality through lower N balance under different scenarios using the case study of maize (Zea mays L.) data from the US Corn Belt. Observations were grouped in studies from the US and non-US regions. Results show that NO3 losses increased exponentially as N balance increases for both the US and non-US regions, though they were 60% higher in the US at a given N balance. Scenario analysis revealed that reducing the N rate from the agronomic optimum to the lower point within the economic optimum N rate range decreased NO3 losses by 13% without impacting economic returns. The case study for maize showed that improvements in N use efficiency that increase grain yield at a given fertilizer rate can substantially reduce N balance and mitigate NO3 losses. This study provides an evidence-based foundation for food supply chain companies to mitigate global NO3 pollution, specifically by using the generalized relationships presented here to track progress in NO3 leaching mitigation. To further resolve uncertainties and improve region-specific estimates for NO3 losses, we propose a tiered monitoring and assessment framework similar to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) methodology for N2O emissions, widely implemented in science and used for policy.

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