A Research Road Map for Responsible Use of Agricultural Nitrogen

Michael Udvardi, Frederick E. Below, Michael J. Castellano, Alison J. Eagle, Ken E. Giller, Jagdish Kumar Ladha, Xuejun Liu, Tai Mc Clellan Maaz, Barbara Nova-Franco, Nandula Raghuram, G. Philip Robertson, Sonali Roy, Malay Saha, Susanne Schmidt, Mechthild Tegeder, Larry M. York, John W. Peters

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Nitrogen (N) is an essential but generally limiting nutrient for biological systems. Development of the Haber-Bosch industrial process for ammonia synthesis helped to relieve N limitation of agricultural production, fueling the Green Revolution and reducing hunger. However, the massive use of industrial N fertilizer has doubled the N moving through the global N cycle with dramatic environmental consequences that threaten planetary health. Thus, there is an urgent need to reduce losses of reactive N from agriculture, while ensuring sufficient N inputs for food security. Here we review current knowledge related to N use efficiency (NUE) in agriculture and identify research opportunities in the areas of agronomy, plant breeding, biological N fixation (BNF), soil N cycling, and modeling to achieve responsible, sustainable use of N in agriculture. Amongst these opportunities, improved agricultural practices that synchronize crop N demand with soil N availability are low-hanging fruit. Crop breeding that targets root and shoot physiological processes will likely increase N uptake and utilization of soil N, while breeding for BNF effectiveness in legumes will enhance overall system NUE. Likewise, engineering of novel N-fixing symbioses in non-legumes could reduce the need for chemical fertilizers in agroecosystems but is a much longer-term goal. The use of simulation modeling to conceptualize the complex, interwoven processes that affect agroecosystem NUE, along with multi-objective optimization, will also accelerate NUE gains.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number660155
JournalFrontiers in Sustainable Food Systems
StatePublished - May 31 2021


  • agronomy
  • biological nitrogen fixation
  • breeding
  • microbiome
  • nitrogen use efficiency
  • policy
  • roots
  • soil health

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Food Science
  • Ecology
  • Agronomy and Crop Science
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law
  • Horticulture


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