20 July 2021

Nitrogen Numbers

TPSS joins an international effort to standardize the datasets

Nitrogen Numbers

Nitrogen is the unsung hero of food production. The common element is an essential nutrient for plant growth and health. It is found in the chlorophyll needed for photosynthesis, in the amino acids that form proteins, in the adenosine triphosphate (ATP) compounds that release energy, and in the DNA that codes all plant life.

Yet, because nitrogen leaks from agricultural systems, nitrogen deficiency is a common nutritional problem for plants. There’s also the question of the excessive use of nitrogen fertilizers and their effect on sustainable croplands, as well as the environment.

In a new international study meant to improve nitrogen management and better understand the global nitrogen cycle, researchers compared 13 nitrogen budget datasets covering 115 countries and regions over the past half-century. The team included an investigator from the Dept. of Tropical Plant & Soil Sciences and found that, while most datasets collected show similar patterns, some estimates vary quite widely. The authors propose a common benchmark for nitrogen budgets, based on median values and the range of estimates.

“Nitrogen budgets tell us how much nitrogen is present and moving through our systems, but they’re notoriously difficult to construct on regional, national, and global scales,” says Tai Maaz. “This study provides an opportunity to create a benchmark so that people who are interested in comparing models can use a common dataset.”

In other words, it will facilitate apple-to-apple comparisons between model structures, rather than apple-to-orange differences in data inputs. Once this happens, scientists will have a much better tool to help in ecological modeling. In addition, policymakers commonly use nitrogen budgets to evaluate the risk of environmental impacts and set effective policies. 

“I am honored to be part of this international team of researchers led by Dr. Xin Zhang,” Tai says. “I am hopeful this study will help us find ways for more sustainable management. Proper and robust nitrogen budgeting is important for HawaiĘ»i to protect our water and sensitive ecosystems from nitrogen pollution.”

The study, Quantification of global and national nitrogen budgets for crop production, appears in a recent Nature Food.

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