Costs and benefits of synthetic nitrogen for global cereal production in 2015 and in 2050 under contrasting scenarios

TitleCosts and benefits of synthetic nitrogen for global cereal production in 2015 and in 2050 under contrasting scenarios
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2024
AuthorsRodríguez A, van Grinsven HJM, van Loon MP, Doelman JC, b LLassaletta, Lassaletta L
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Date Published02/2024

Cereals are the most important global staple crop and use more than half of global cropland and synthetic nitrogen (N) fertilizer. While this synthetic N may feed half of the current global population, it has led to a massive increase in reactive N loss to the environment, causing a suite of impacts, offsetting the benefits of N fertilizers for food security and agricultural economy. To address these complex issues, the NBCalCer model was developed to quantify the global effects of N input on crop yields, N budgets and environmental impacts and to assess the associated social benefits and costs. Three Shared Socioeconomic Pathway scenarios (SSPs) were considered with decreasing N agri-environmental ambitions, through contrasting climate and N policy ambitions: sustainability (SSP1H), middle-of-the-road (SSP2M) and fossil-fueled development (SSP5L). In the base year the contribution of synthetic N fertilizer to global cereal production was 44 %. Global modelled grain yield was projected to increase under all scenarios while the use of synthetic N fertilizer decreases under all scenarios except SSP5L. The total N surplus was projected to be reduced up to 20 % under SSP1H but to increase under SSP5L. The Benefit-Cost-Ratio (BCR) was calculated as the ratio between the market benefit of increased grain production by synthetic N and the summed cost of fertilizer purchase and the external cost of the N losses. In base year the BCR was well above one in all regions, but in 2050 under SSP1H and SSP5L decreased to below one in most regions. Given the concerns about food security, environmental quality and its interaction with biodiversity loss, human health and climate change, the new paradigm for global cereal production is producing sufficient food with minimum N pollution. Our results indicate that achieving this goal would require a massive change in global volume and distribution of synthetic N.