Long-term experiments for sustainable nutrient management in China. A review

Yuxin Miao, Bobby A. Stewart, Fusuo Zhang

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

260 Scopus citations


China is facing one of the largest challenges of this century to continue to increase annual cereal production to about 600 Mt by 2030 to ensure food security with shrinking cropland and limited resources, while maintaining or improving soil fertility, and protecting the environment. Rich experiences in integrated and efficient utilization of different strategies of crop rotation, intercropping, and all possible nutrient resources accumulated by Chinese farmers in traditional farming systems have been gradually abandoned and nutrient management shifted to over-reliance on synthetic fertilizers. China is now the world's largest producer, consumer and importer of chemical fertilizers. Overapplication of nitrogen (N) is common in intensive agricultural regions, and current N-uptake efficiency was reported to be only 28.3, 28.2 and 26.1% for rice, wheat and maize, respectively, and less than 20% in intensive agricultural regions and for fruit trees or vegetable crops. In addition to surface and groundwater pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, over-application of N fertilizers has caused significant soil acidification in major Chinese croplands, decreasing soil pH by 0.13 to 2.20. High yield as a top priority, small-scale farming, lack of temporal synchronization of nutrient supply and crop demand, lack of effective extension systems, and hand application of fertilizers by farmers are possible reasons leading to the over-application problems. There is little doubt that current nutrient management practices are not sustainable and more efficient management systems need to be developed. A review of long-term experiments conducted around the world indicated that chemical fertilizer alone is not enough to improve or maintain soil fertility at high levels and the soil acidification problem caused by overapplication of synthetic N fertilizers can be reduced if more fertilizer N is applied as NO 3 - relative to ammonium- or urea-based N fertilizers. Organic fertilizers can improve soil fertility and quality, but long-term application at high rates can also lead to more nitrate leaching, and accumulation of P, if not managed well. Well-managed combination of chemical and organic fertilizers can overcome the disadvantages of applying single source of fertilizers and sustainably achieve higher crop yields, improve soil fertility, alleviate soil acidification problems, and increase nutrient-use efficiency compared with only using chemical fertilizers. Crop yield can be increased through temporal diversity using crop rotation strategies compared with continuous cropping and legume-based cropping systems can reduce carbon and nitrogen losses. Crop yield responses to N fertilization can vary significantly from year to year due to variation in weather conditions and indigenous N supply, thus the commonly adopted prescriptive approach to N management needs to be replaced by a responsive in-season management approach based on diagnosis of crop growth, N status and demand. A crop sensor-based in-season site-specific N management strategy was able to increase Nuptake efficiency by 368% over farmers' practices in the North China Plain. Combination of these well-tested nutrient management principles and practices with modern crop management technologies is needed to develop sustainable nutrient management systems in China that can precisely match field-to-field and year-to-year variability in nutrient supply and crop demand for both single crops and crop rotations to not only improve nutrient-use efficiency but also increase crop yield and protect the environment. In addition, innovative and effective extension and service-providing systems to assist farmers in adopting and applying new management systems and technologies are also crucially important for China to meet the grand challenge of food security, nutrient-use efficiency and sustainable development.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)397-414
Number of pages18
JournalAgronomy for Sustainable Development
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2011


  • Chemical fertilizer
  • Intensive farming
  • Long-term experiment
  • Organic fertilizer
  • Precision agriculture
  • Precision nutrient management
  • Small-scale farming
  • Sustainable nutrient management


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