Sustainable Nitrogen Management Index: Definition, global assessment and potential improvements

TitleSustainable Nitrogen Management Index: Definition, global assessment and potential improvements
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2022
AuthorsZhang X, Wang Y, Schulte-Uebbing L, de Vries W, Zou T, Davidson E
JournalFrontiers of Agricultural Science and Engineering
Date Published07/2022

To represent the sustainability of nitrogen management in the Sustainable Development Goals indicator framework, this paper proposes a sustainable nitrogen management index (SNMI). This index combines the performance in N crop yield and N use efficiency (NUE), thereby accounting for the need for both food production and environmental protection. Applying SNMI to countries around the world, the results showed improvement in the overall sustainability of crop N management over the past four decades, but this improvement has been mainly achieved by crop yield increase, while global NUE has improved only slightly. SNMI values vary largely among countries, and this variation has increased since the 1970s, implying different levels of success, even failure, in improving N management for countries around the world. In the standard SNMI assessment, the reference NUE was defined as 1.0 (considered an ideal NUE) and the reference yield was defined as 90 kg·ha−1·yr−1 N (considering a globally averaged yield target for meeting food demand in 2050). A sensitivity test that replaced the reference NUE of 1.0 with more realistic NUE targets of 0.8 or 0.9 showed overall reduction in SNMI values (i.e., improved performance), but little change in the ranking among countries. In another test that replaced the universal reference yield with region-specific attainable yield, SNMI values declined (i.e., improved performance) for most countries in Africa and West Asia, whereas they increased for many countries in Europe and South America. The index can be improved by further investigation of approaches for setting region-specific yield targets and high-quality data on crop yield potentials. Overall, SNMI offers promise for a simple and transparent approach to assess progress of countries toward sustainable N management with a single indicator.