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Effort to understand nitrogen use in U.S. and China receives joint funding from NSF

February 15, 2021

A collaborative project to identify ways to improve sustainability of nitrogen management in food, water, and energy systems in China and the United States has received funding from the United States and China’s National Science Foundation. This research will help further understand and analyze the interconnectedness of these life sustaining systems and help future policymakers with decisions for improving the sustainability of these systems.

“In research we often focus our work in narrowly defined disciplines and issues, but in order to achieve food demands, address water scarcity and energy challenges, we need to bring these issues together because they are all interconnected,” said UMCES Assistant Professor Xin Zhang. “Nitrogen is arguably one common element critical for all those three issues. If we can manage nitrogen well, we can address these challenges.“

Using models and data sets that are available from both countries, researchers hope to understand how nitrogen flows through agricultural production systems and investigate the influence of socioeconomic drivers, such as the portfolios of crop and livestock production, on nitrogen management, to understand why nitrogen use efficiency is higher in some regions over others.

Nitrogen is a common element flowing through important life -sustaining systems of food production, water, and energy. For example, nitrogen fertilizer is used to grow food, which is also composed of the element, and it supports the food production for over 40% of the world’s population. However, the production of nitrogen fertilizer is energy intensive, and its overuse has led to prevalent water pollution. To produce the nitrogen fertilizer needed to sustain a growing world population, it would be best to understand how to produce it and use it in the most effective way possible.

"Food production is important locally and globally, and this international project exemplifies our mission to conduct research that is both locally relevant and globally eminent," said Eric Davidson, director of UMCES’ Appalachian Laboratory and co-leader of the project.

Globally, less than 20% of nitrogen added to crop and livestock production systems is recovered as food products, while most of the rest is lost to the environment, becoming the major contributor to nutrient pollution in water. Improving the nitrogen-use efficiency in crop and livestock production would help the sustainability of the food-water-energy nexus

“We are trying to bring the food, water, and energy issues together and see if we can address these issues by connecting the food, energy, and water systems through nitrogen, the common element among systems, and collectively improving the management of nitrogen across systems,” said Zhang.

Farming approaches in the United States and China differ greatly, from production size, soil composition, and technologies used, resulting in different nitrogen use and efficiencies. By working together, the project team aims to understand how nitrogen is flowing through these agricultural landscapes in differing biophysical and socioeconomic environments.

“Through the US-China collaboration in this project, we are able to learn from each other and identify best management practices under a variety of socioeconomic and ecological condition,” Said Co-Principal Investigator Xiaoyuan Yan of the Chinese Academy of Science,

“We will not be able to solve the whole puzzle by looking at each factor independently.”

- Xin Zhang

“These types of scientific collaboration are extremely important to be maintained. People may have different view of the world, but the issues of sustainability and nutrient pollution don’t see country boundaries,” said Zhang.

The nitrogen cycles in China and the United States are already intertwined through intensive crop trade between the countries. It is monumentally important to maintain scientific collaborations to ensure the continuation of scientific discoveries.

“In the context of disruptive global pandemic and volatile trade relationships, the launch of this project is just at the right time for us to think about the rebuild of food-energy-water nexus for human welfare,” said the Co-Principal Investigator Baojing Gu from Zhejiang University.

Through the project, they will build a model that connects the dynamics of agricultural production systems through international trade, furthering the understanding of how trade connections can lead to varying nitrogen use, as well as the risks in food security, in the two countries and the world. This information can then help policy makers in decision making surrounding trade, agricultural production, and food security.