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Are Nitrogen Fertilizers Deleterious to Soil Health?


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Soil is one of the most important natural resources and medium for plant growth. Anthropogenic interventions such as tillage, irrigation, and fertilizer application can affect the health of the soil. Use of fertilizer nitrogen (N) for crop production influences soil health primarily through changes in organic matter content, microbial life, and acidity in the soil. Soil organic matter (SOM) constitutes the storehouse of soil N. Studies with 15N-labelled fertilizers show that in a cropping season, plants take more N from the soil than from the fertilizer. A large number of long-term field experiments prove that optimum fertilizer N application to crops neither resulted in loss of organic matter nor adversely affected microbial activity in the soil. Fertilizer N, when applied at or below the level at which maximum yields are achieved, resulted in the build-up of SOM and microbial biomass by promoting plant growth and increasing the amount of litter and root biomass added to soil. Only when fertilizer N was applied at rates more than the optimum, increased residual inorganic N accelerated the loss of SOM through its mineralization. Soil microbial life was also adversely affected at very high fertilizers rates. Optimum fertilizer use on agricultural crops reduces soil erosion but repeated application of high fertilizer N doses may lead to soil acidity, a negative soil health trait. Site-specific management strategies based on principles of synchronization of N demand by crops with N supply from all sources including soil and fertilizer could ensure high yields, along with maintenance of soil health. Balanced application of different nutrients and integrated nutrient management based on organic manures and mineral fertilizers also contributed to soil health maintenance and improvement. Thus, fertilizer N, when applied as per the need of the field crops in a balanced proportion with other nutrients and along with organic manures, if available with the farmer, maintains or improves soil health rather than being deleterious.
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Are Nitrogen Fertilizers Deleterious to Soil Health?
Bijay- Singh ID
Department of Soil Science, Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana 141 004, India;;
Tel.: +91 98155 69369
Received: 5 March 2018; Accepted: 12 April 2018; Published: 14 April 2018
Soil is one of the most important natural resources and medium for plant growth.
Anthropogenic interventions such as tillage, irrigation, and fertilizer application can affect the health
of the soil. Use of fertilizer nitrogen (N) for crop production influences soil health primarily through
changes in organic matter content, microbial life, and acidity in the soil. Soil organic matter (SOM)
constitutes the storehouse of soil N. Studies with
N-labelled fertilizers show that in a cropping
season, plants take more N from the soil than from the fertilizer. A large number of long-term field
experiments prove that optimum fertilizer N application to crops neither resulted in loss of organic
matter nor adversely affected microbial activity in the soil. Fertilizer N, when applied at or below
the level at which maximum yields are achieved, resulted in the build-up of SOM and microbial
biomass by promoting plant growth and increasing the amount of litter and root biomass added
to soil. Only when fertilizer N was applied at rates more than the optimum, increased residual
inorganic N accelerated the loss of SOM through its mineralization. Soil microbial life was also
adversely affected at very high fertilizers rates. Optimum fertilizer use on agricultural crops reduces
soil erosion but repeated application of high fertilizer N doses may lead to soil acidity, a negative
soil health trait. Site-specific management strategies based on principles of synchronization of N
demand by crops with N supply from all sources including soil and fertilizer could ensure high yields,
along with maintenance of soil health. Balanced application of different nutrients and integrated
nutrient management based on organic manures and mineral fertilizers also contributed to soil health
maintenance and improvement. Thus, fertilizer N, when applied as per the need of the field crops in
a balanced proportion with other nutrients and along with organic manures, if available with the
farmer, maintains or improves soil health rather than being deleterious.
soil organic matter; soil biota; soil acidity; soil erosion; fertilizer management; site-specific
nutrient management; balanced use of fertilizers; integrated nutrient management
1. Introduction
Soil is fundamental to crop production and constitutes a natural resource that provides humans
with most of their food and nutrients. However, it is finite and fragile, and requires special care
and conservation so that it can be used indefinitely by future generations. Doran and Parkin [
defined soil quality or soil health as its capacity to function within ecosystem and land-use boundaries,
sustain biological productivity, maintain environmental quality, and promote plant and animal health.
Soil as a medium for plant growth constitutes a living system and a habitat for many organisms and
is characterized mainly by its biological functions, which operate through complex interactions with
the abiotic, physical, and chemical environment. Soil health often reflects the condition of the soil in
terms of management-sensitive properties and provides an idea of its overall fitness for carrying out
ecosystem functions and responding to environmental stresses [
]. According to Kibblewhite et al. [
a healthy agricultural soil is one that is capable of supporting the production of food and fiber to a level,
and with regard to quality, it is sufficient to meet human requirements and can continue to sustain
Agronomy 2018,8, 48; doi:10.3390/agronomy8040048
Agronomy 2018,8, 48 2 of 19
those functions that are essential to maintaining the quality of life for humans and the conservation of
biodiversity. This definition implies that soil health is an integrative property that reflects the capacity
of the soil to respond to agricultural interventions and circumvent processes that degrade it.
The main driver for anthropogenic interventions in the functioning of soils over the past century
has been the quadrupling of the world’s population, which has demanded a fundamental change
in soil and crop management in order to produce more food from land already in cultivation [
Cultivation of soil to prepare the seed bed possibly constituted the first human intervention. In regions
receiving little rainfall, irrigation represented another major external influence on the soil. Additionally,
during the last 70 years or so, the application of mineral fertilizers has constituted an important human
intervention that has influenced the functioning of agricultural soils, although the widespread use of
mineral fertilizers has been one of the major factors in ensuring global food security. Every human
intervention invariably represents major and sometimes irrevocable change in the nature and properties
of the original soil. The key issue is to minimize the negative effects of such changes. Otherwise,
the history of agriculture is replete with examples in which civilizations waned or disappeared because
of failure to minimize the impact of human interventions on the soil resource.
Mineral fertilizers are applied to the soil to supplement or substitute for biological functions
that are considered inadequate or inefficient for achieving the required levels of production. As per
FAO’s revised projection regarding world agriculture, global agricultural production in 2050 should be
60% higher than in 2005/2007 [
]. To close this gap through agricultural production increases alone,
total crop production would need to increase even more from 2006 to 2050 than it did in the same
number of years from 1962 to 2006—an 11% larger increase [
]. The bulk of the projected increases
in crop production will come from high yields, which normally demand high fertilizer application
rates, and will lead to an increase in fertilizer use [
]. According to Erisman et al. [
], over 48% of the
more than 7 billion people alive today are living because of increased crop production made possible
by applying fertilizer nitrogen (N). However, fertilizers being chemicals can potentially disturb the
natural functioning of the soil and may also affect the output of other ecosystem services.
The challenge ahead is to manage fertilizers and soil in such a way that not only food demands
are continuously met, but soil also remains healthy to support adequate food production with
minimal environmental impact. The objective of this paper is to examine how fertilizer N use affects
important and crucial soil health parameters such as soil organic matter (SOM), carbon (C), N,
soil microorganisms, and soil acidity. As mineral fertilizers can potentially affect normal functioning of
the soil, important management aspects of fertilizer N have also been discussed in terms of supplying
adequate amounts of nutrients to crop plants, as well as maintenance of soil health.
2. Fertilizer Use—Soil Health Linkages
The major impact of fertilizers on the soil health and ecosystem functions is regulated through
their effect on primary productivity. There are hardly any direct toxic effects even when fertilizers
are applied in somewhat excessive quantities; the effects are on rates of different processes in the soil.
Prior to the development of Haber-Bosch process in the early 1900s and introduction of N fertilizers
around middle of the last century, organic manures (mainly animal manures) containing large amount
of organic materials and legume crops used to be the major source of N for crops. An important
indirect consequence of the increasing use of N fertilizers was a reduction in the use of organic manures;
decoupling of animal farming from arable farming and availability of sewage sludges were also factors
in the reduced use of organic manures. Subsequently, after a couple of decades, there was a revival of
interest in organic manures due to their increasing supplies and their perceived role in soil health and
nutrient recycling. Nevertheless, in several developing countries, particularly in Asia, crop production
still relies more on fertilizers because of limited availability of animal manures and crop residues.
For example, in South Asia, which accounted for more than 18% of the global fertilizer consumption in
2015 [
], a significant proportion of animal excreta are used as household fuel rather than for making
organic manure for crops.
Agronomy 2018,8, 48 3 of 19
Soil organic matter is a relatively small component of the soil in terms of volume, but it constitutes
the single most important soil property in relation to soil health. It exerts profound influence on the
chemical, physical, and biological properties of the soil. Rate of decomposition of ‘low quality’ or
high C:N ratio organic inputs and SOM increases when fertilizers, particularly N, are applied to the
soil [
]. Fertilizer application increases microbial decomposer activity, which has been limited due
to low nutrient concentrations in the organic materials. Thus, application of fertilizer N may lead to
accelerated decomposition of organic matter in the soil and adversely affect the soil health.
Soil microbial life and associated microbial transformations constitute another important soil
health parameter that may be affected by application of fertilizers. While net primary production in
agricultural ecosystems is generally N limited, activity of soil microorganisms may be C and/or N
limited [
]. The response of soil microbes to fertilizer N application may, therefore, differ from the
response of the plants. That the soil biota are adversely affected due to application of N fertilizers
is one of the notions that has been put forth many times to support the argument against fertilizers.
However, N fertilizers may lead to increased acidity and adversely affect many soil functions. On the
other hand, fertilizer use may reduce soil erosion and may have a positive impact on soil health.
3. Fertilizer Use Effects on Soil Organic Matter
Soil organic matter is a key indicator of soil health because of its vital functions that affect soil
fertility, productivity, and the environment. In low-fertility ecosystems, application of nutrients
through fertilizers regulates net primary productivity and SOM cycling [
]. Build-up of SOM
definitely leads to improvement in soil health. However, over time, if the SOM level declines by
soil microbial mineralization and/or other losses such as leaching and soil erosion, the soil health
deteriorates not only in terms of many benefits including improvement in soil structure, increased soil
C storage, and water holding capacity but also N nutrition of crop plants. Because of the fundamental
coupling of microbial C and N cycling and the close correlation between soil C and N mineralization,
the management practices that lead to loss of soil organic C (SOC) also have serious implications for
the storage of N in soil. Thus loss of SOM can be inherently detrimental to crop productivity.
Dourado-Neto et al. [
] conducted a
N-recovery experiment in 13 diverse tropical agro-ecosystems
and estimated the total recovery of one single
N application of inorganic N during three to six growing
seasons. Between 7 and 58% (average of 21%) of crop N uptake (mean 147
6 kg N ha
) during the first
growing season was derived from fertilizer. On average, 79% of crop N was derived from the soil (Table 1).
Average recoveries of
N-labeled fertilizer and residue in crops after the first growing season were 33
and 7%, respectively. Corresponding recoveries in the soil were 38 and 71%. After five growing seasons,
more residue N (40%) than fertilizer N (18%) was recovered in the soil, better sustaining the N content in
SOM. Making a worldwide evaluation of fertilizer N use efficiency in cereals, Ladha et al. [
] used data
from 93 published studies and concluded that average
N fertilizer recovery in the grain and straw in
maize, rice, and wheat in the first growing season was 40, 44, and 45%, respectively. Overall recovery
based on
N dilution method among regions and crops was 44% (572 data points). The International
Atomic Energy Agency [
] reported that the average percentage of single applications of
N fertilizer
recovered in above-ground portion of the crop plants in the subsequent five growing seasons (excluding
the crop to which
N fertilizer was applied) across all locations was 5.7 to 7.1%. Thus, with an average
N fertilizer recovery of 44% in the first crop of a cropping system [
], the total recovery of
N fertilizer
in the first and the five subsequent crops is approximately 50%. Assuming that amount of
N in the
roots becomes negligible in the sixth growing season, large portion of remaining 50% of the
N fertilizer
will become part of the large soil N pool and some portion may get lost from the cropping system [
Thus, N bound to C in the SOM is not only the largest source of N for the crop plants but also the largest
sink of N fertilizer inputs in modern cereal cropping systems, so that SOC impacts both crop yield and N
losses to the environment.
Agronomy 2018,8, 48 4 of 19
Table 1.
Total above-ground N accumulation and contribution of fertilizer N and soil N as estimated
by applying 15N labelled fertilizers for crops grown under diverse soil and climatic conditions.
Country Soil Order Crop Fertilizer N Applied
(kg N ha1)
Total Crop N
(kg N ha1)
Derived from
Fertilizer N (%)
Derived from
Soil N (%)
Wheat 60 60 ±3 43 ±1 57 ±1
Brazil Ultisol Sugarcane 63 251 ±7 16 ±1 84 ±1
Chile Andisol Maize 300 178 ±7 31 ±2 69 ±2
Chile Andisol Wheat 160 124 ±4 16 ±2 84 ±2
China Inceptisol Rice 60 292 ±7 7 ±<1 93 ±<1
Egypt Entisol Wheat 60 80 ±6 20 ±1 80 ±1
Malaysia Ultisol Maize 60 53 ±2 23 ±1 77 ±1
Morocco Aridisol Wheat 42 161 ±7 18 ±1 82 ±1
Morocco Inceptisol Sunflower 35 129 ±7 7 ±<1 93 ±<1
Morocco Inceptisol Bean 85 225 ±6 7 ±<1 93 ±<1
Sri Lanka Ultisol Maize 60 139 ±6 11 ±<1 89 ±<1
Sri Lanka Ultisol Maize 60 139 ±6 18 ±1 82 ±1
Vietnam Ultisol Maize 120 92 ±3 58 ±1 42 ±1
Mean 147 ±6 21 ±1 79 ±1
Modified from Dourado-Neto et al. [13].
Plant uptake of native soil N is boosted either through increase in mineralization of soil N or by
plant-mediated processes such as increased root growth and rhizosphere N priming [
]. Native soil
N priming dynamics are influenced by soil type, fertilizer type, and environmental factors [
Using a meta-analysis based on 43
N studies from all over the globe, Liu et al. [
] revealed fertilizer
N effects on mineralization and plant uptake of native soil N were not influenced by study type
(laboratory or field), location and duration, soil texture, C and N content, and pH. Although fertilizer
tended to increase N priming through variable effects on native soil N mineralization, plant uptake
of native soil N increased consistently. This inconsistency suggested that there exists a complex
interaction between fertilizer N addition and microbial immobilization-mineralization of N and C,
but not that fertilizer N application results in loss of SOM.
Potentially, fertilizer N application can affect SOM in two ways: (i) it may increase SOM by
promoting plant growth and increasing the amount of litter and root biomass added to soil compared
with the soil not receiving fertilizer N; and (ii) it may accelerate SOM loss through decay or microbial
transformation of litter (leaves, straw, manures) and indigenous forms of organic C already present
in the soil [
]. The first mechanism is widely accepted, but the second mechanism has not been
demonstrated indisputably. Normally, SOM decreases with cultivation [
] when no N fertilizer is
applied. Application of fertilizer N often increases SOM level and C sequestration in soils of intensively
managed multiple cropping systems [
]. Ghimire et al. [
] have cited a number of long-term
fertility experiments from India and Nepal in which SOC in control plots after 20 years ranged from
1.9 to 7.3 g kg
, but in all the experiments application of optimum N, P and K fertilizers registered
an increase in SOC over control ranging from 0.2 to 3.5 g kg
. Also, fertilizer use could promote
aggregate formation [
] and stabilization [
], and enhance the spatial inaccessibility for decomposing
organisms [33].
Poffenbarger et al. [
] evaluated changes in surface SOC over 14 to 16 years by applying fertilizer
N rates empirically determined to be insufficient, optimum, or excessive for maximum maize yield.
It was observed that SOC balances were negative when no N was applied. For continuous maize,
the rate of SOC storage increased with increasing N rate, reaching a maximum at the optimum N
rate but decreasing above the optimum N rate. When fertilizer N application rate was below the
optimum, applied N stimulated crop growth, leading to increasing crop residue inputs to the soil and,
in turn, increasing the rate of soil organic storage. However, when the N application rate was above
the optimum, added N did not increase crop residue production beyond that observed at the optimum
level but increased residual inorganic N, which enhanced SOC mineralization leading to loss of SOC.
Green et al. [
] also observed that annual additions of more N than needed to maximize yields of maize
could cause losses of SOM and suggested that reducing unnecessary fertilization could help conserve
Agronomy 2018,8, 48 5 of 19
SOM. Conceptual understanding of the SOC response to N fertilization is illustrated in Figure 1[
Residual soil inorganic N produced due to application of fertilizer N beyond the optimum level may
enhance mineralization of SOC by eliminating N limitation on microbial growth [
] or by adversely
affecting soil aggregation [
], which makes previously protected SOM more susceptible to decay.
Excessive N fertilization may also decrease the C:N ratio of crop residues [
] and enhance their
decomposition rate. There may be multiple processes controlling the SOC response to N fertilization,
but the extent of increased C inputs vis-à-vis SOC mineralization depends on the N sufficiency level.
Figure 1.
Conceptual diagram showing possible effects of fertilizer application to crops on SOC as
defined by relationships between increasing fertilizer N application levels and (i) yield and crop residue
production, (ii) change in yield per unit N input, and (iii) residual soil inorganic N. Maximum yield
of the crop is obtained at the optimum N rate. Expected SOC responses to fertilizer N application
below and above optimum N rate are shown above the grey and white areas of the plots, respectively
(Modified from Poffenbarger et al. [34]).
Glendining and Powlson [
] found that in 84% comparisons in 45 long-term experiments in
temperate regions, applications of fertilizer N on long-term basis increased total soil organic N (SON)
as compared to in the treatments receiving no fertilizer. However, Khan et al. [
] and Mulvaney
et al. [
] reported that in long-term experiments located in both temperate and tropical regions,
continuous application of fertilizer N induced a net loss of SOC in 73% sites and reduction in soil N
at 92% of the sites examined. Powlson et al. [
] argued that data sets used by these authors were
not comprehensive enough, and long-term changes in soil N and C in the zero-N control plots were
not taken into consideration. Ladha et al. [
] resolved this controversy using data from 135 studies
of 114 long-term experiments located at 100 sites located all over the world. The data pertaining to
SOC and SON were analyzed following time-response ratio and time by fertilizer N response ratio.
The time-response ratio is a percentage change in total SOC or N compared with the initial amount,
and it was calculated separately for both zero-N and N-fertilized treatments. Khan et al. [
] and
Mulvaney [
] used this approach, and like them Ladha [
] also observed an average decline in SOC
to the tune of 16% and 10% in zero-N and fertilizer N amended plots; corresponding decline in SON
was 11% and 4% (Table 2). These decreases were confounded with decrease in SOM content occurring
independently of the use of fertilizer N. Ladha et al. [
] separated the two processes by following
the change over time in SOM content with or without fertilizer, and this was done by analyzing the
data using time by fertilizer N response ratio. While the time-response ratio addressed the impact of
the whole system (tillage, residue management, erosion, fertilizer amendment) on changes in SOC or
SON, the time by fertilizer N response ratio specifically assessed the impact of fertilizer N amendment,
and it is defined as the percentage difference between the change in SOC or N in the N-fertilized
Agronomy 2018,8, 48 6 of 19
treatments compared with the changes in zero-N treatment. Using the time by fertilizer ratio, which is
based on changes in the paired comparisons at the initiation of the long-term experiments and final
sampling period, Ladha et al. [
] observed overall averages of 8% higher SOC and 10% higher SON
with fertilizer N than with zero-N (Table 2). Furthermore, the positive effect of fertilizer N in tropical,
humid subtropical, and temperate soils ranged from 3 to 16% for SOC and 8 to 15% for SON, with the
highest increases observed in the tropical environment (Table 2). Due to inherently lower status of
SOC and N than in temperate soils, the relatively higher positive effect of fertilizer N application is
expected in tropical soils. Recently, Geiseller and Scow [
] and Körschens et al. [
] also observed that
in long-term experiments from all over the world, application of mineral fertilizers leads to increase in
SOM as compared to in no-fertilizer plots (Table 3). Using total organic C and natural
C abundance
measurements in a long-term experiment under continuous maize, Gregorich et al. [
] observed that
fertilized soils had more organic C than unfertilized soils; the difference was accounted for by more
C4-derived C in the fertilized soils.
Table 2.
Changes in SOC and SON in zero-N and N fertilized plots observed by meta-analysis of data
from 114 long-term experiments following time-response ratio (TR) and time by fertilizer N response
ratio (TNR).
% Change in SOC % Change in SON
Zero-N Fertilizer N Zero-N Fertilizer N
TR: overall changes 16 10 11 4
TNR: overall changes - 8 - 10
TNR: changes in tropical soils - 16 - 15
TNR: changes in humid tropical soils - 11 - 11
TNR: changes in temperate soils - 3 - 8
Data source: Ladha et al. [43].
Table 3.
Increase in SOC due to fertilizer application as compared to in the unfertilized controls in
meta-analysis conducted on long-term experiments from all over the world.
Crops Region Duration of Long-Term
Experiments (years) Increase in SOC (%) Reference
Non-lowland rice crops World 5–130 12.8
Geiseller and Scow [
Cereal crops World 6–158 8 Ladha et al. [43]
Wheat, barley, oats, sugar
beets, potato, maize,
sorghum, rye
Europe 16–108 10 Körschens et al. [45]
The North Indian state of Punjab is the most intensively cultivated region in India, with a cropping
intensity of 190%, predominantly of a rice–wheat cropping system. A study based on 0.319 million
soil samples of the 0–20 cm plough layer analyzed during 25 year period between 1981/82 to 2005/06
revealed that as a weighted average for the whole state, SOC increased from 2.9 g kg
in 1981/82 to
4.0 g kg
in 2005/06, an increase of 38% [
]. A close relationship (R
= 0.79) between SOC stocks
in the plough layer and total rice and wheat grain yield during the 25-year period was observed.
Increased productivity of rice and wheat resulted in enhanced C accumulation in the plough layer by
0.8 t C ha1t1
of increased grain production. The increased productivity of both rice and wheat in
the Punjab was achieved through increasing fertilizer (N, P, and K) use from 0.762 Mt in 1980/81 to
1.687 Mt in 2005/06 or from 112.5 kg ha
in 1980/81 to 214.0 kg ha
. Soil pH declined by 0.8 pH units
from 8.5 in 1981/82 to 7.7 in 2005/06. This pH decline has positive implications for availability of P and
micronutrients such as Zn, Fe, and Mn. Tian et al. [
] conducted a meta-analysis of paired-treatment
data from 95 long-term field experiments published from 1980 to 2012 to characterize the changes in
SOC in paddy soils in China. While significant increase in the SOC was observed in the optimum
fertilizer N, P, and K fertilizer treatment as compared to in the no-fertilizer treatment; the mean difference
Agronomy 2018,8, 48 7 of 19
in SOC change rates between the two treatments was measured to be 0.140
0.023 g kg
Using a meta-analysis based on 257 published studies, Lu et al. [
] revealed that despite increased soil
respiration, there was a significant 3.5% increase in C storage in agricultural ecosystems due to application
of N. The N-induced change in soil C storage was related to changes in below-ground production
rather than above-ground growth. Russel et al. [
] also observed that quantity of below-ground
organic C inputs was the best predictor of long-term soil C storage. Shang et al. [
] conducted
a meta-analysis based on published data on crop yields and soil parameters from long-term experiments
in maize-wheat, rice-rice, and rice-wheat cropping systems in China. Although conservation of SOC in
upland maize-wheat system was conspicuously less than in the rice based cropping systems, application
of optimum rate of N, P, and K fertilizers resulted in build-up of SOC over no-fertilizer control in all the
three cropping systems (Table 4). Decrease in SOC content in the no-fertilizer control from the initial
values in the completely aerobic maize-wheat cropping system should be due to cultivation of the soil.
Table 4.
Average SOC content at the start (initial) of long-term experiments on maize-wheat, rice-wheat,
and rice-rice cropping systems and in no-fertilizer (N, P, and K) control and optimum N, P, and K
fertilizer level treatments at the end of the experiments in different locations in China.
Number of
SOC (g kg1)
Initial No-Fertilizer
Optimum N, P and K
Fertilizer Levels
Maize-wheat 12 6–25 6.4 5.8 6.8
Rice-wheat 10 9–27 14.3 14.9 16.3
Rice-rice 23 6–26 16.7 18.1 19.6
Data Source: Shang et al. [50].
Cultivation invariably reduces SOM levels to an extent that depends on management and inputs.
In well managed cultivated soils, SOC fluctuated between a low steady state value of SOM in the
heavily cultivated soil and the highest value observed in the uncultivated soil [
]. Cultivation of
the soil leads to lower equilibrium soil C levels, but the addition of fertilizers reduces the extent
of SOM decline observed with cultivation. Katyal et al. [
] critically analyzed data from several
long-term fertility experiments in India and documented such changes. Twenty years after initiation
of a long-term experiment in a virgin soil, SOM content in the no-fertilizer control reached 34% of the
initial value and seemed to have stabilized at a lower equilibrium level as defined by Buyanovsky
and Wagner [
]. Loss in SOM was obviously due to cultivation of the virgin soil. Buyanovsky and
Wagner [
] reported a decline in native organic matter between 20 and 40% within 5 years after
opening of virgin land. However, when optimum level of fertilizers was applied, SOM remained
stable over the first decade, but in the next 3 years fell to about 40% of the initial value. In contrast
to a virgin soil, already cultivated soil implies that the soil had already shifted to a new dynamic
equilibrium but had probably not yet reached the steady state low value of SOM in the heavily
cultivated soil. In long-term experiments initiated in soil already under cultivation, SOM declined
without any fertilizer application. However, SOM levels were either maintained or increased when
adequate amount of N, P, and K fertilizers was applied [
]. This conclusion was valid, irrespective
of the location or the cropping system. That soil health in terms of SOC and SON declines when
soil is tilled year after year is now an established fact [
]. Therefore, interaction between tillage
and fertilizer use should be taken into account when interpreting changes with time in the SOM in
long-term experiments.
4. Effect of Fertilizer Use on Microbial Life Ion the Soil
Several ecosystem services or the beneficial functions provided by soil are driven by many
interrelated and complex biological processes. The concept of soil health takes into account not only the
Agronomy 2018,8, 48 8 of 19
soil biota and the myriad of biotic interactions that occur, but also considers that the soil provides a living
space for the biota. Microorganisms and various by-products of their metabolism play an important
role in the formation of soil aggregates and in soil structure maintenance. Since soil constitutes an open
system, its integrity or health is affected by external environmental and anthropogenic pressures.
Recently, Hermans et al. [
] observed that soil bacterial communities and their relative abundances
varied more in response to changing soil environments than in response to changes in climate or
increasing geographic distance. As microorganisms play an important role in maintaining fertile and
productive soils, the effect of fertilizers on microbial communities has potentially important implications
for sustainable agriculture. Applied nutrients constitute a controlling input to the soil system and the
processes within it, but adequate knowledge is lacking about the impacts of nutrient additions on the
condition of different assemblages of soil organisms. According to O’Donnell et al. [
], fertilizers do
affect microbial community structure, but the relationship between diversity, community structure,
and function remains complex and difficult to interpret using currently available chemical and molecular
fingerprinting techniques. Mineral fertilizers interact with microbial communities in the soil in a number
of ways and affect the population, composition, and function of soil microorganisms [
]. These may
promote growth of microbes directly by providing nutrients and indirectly by stimulating plant growth
and enhancing root C flow [
]. However, fertilizers, particularly N, when applied to soil may result in
soil acidification limiting microbial growth and activity in soils [
]. Several studies conducted during
last 2–3 decades have revealed that fertilizer application usually favours the accumulation of bacterial
residues [
] and increases soil microbial biomass [
]. In some studies, fertilizer application
increased biomass C and N [
]. Significant improvement in soil quality in terms of increased SOC
and soil microbial biomass due to long-term application of fertilizers in maize–wheat cropping systems
has been reported by Li et al. [67] and Liu et al. [68].
Mbuthia et al. [
] observed that fertilizer N application to cotton continuously for 31 years
significantly increased soil microbial biomass N, mycorrhizae fungi biomarkers, b-glucosaminidase
(N-cycling) activity, and basal microbial respiration rates. In a study in which inorganic fertilizers
were continuously applied for 13 years to flooded double rice crop, Zhong and Cai [
] found that
stimulation of microbial biomass and community functional diversity by fertilizer N could be achieved
only after improvement of the P supply. However, most microbial parameters were correlated with SOC
content, indicating that the application of nutrients through fertilizers affected microbial parameters in
the soil indirectly by increasing the accumulation of SOM. It is generally considered that the primary
limiting factor for microbial activity in soils is the availability of C substrate. However, soil microbes
may frequently be limited by the supply of N in the soil [
]. When demand for N exceeds its
supply, the functional capacity of the soil system is strongly influenced by N availability. Under such
situations in agro-ecosystems, soil health declines without additional inputs of N via fertilizers or
organic manures, and particularly without due consideration of the associated C requirements of the
biomass [37].
Effect of fertilizer application on the soil biota can be positive or negative and vary in duration,
depending upon the type and amount of fertilizer used and mode of application. For example,
potential damage to soil microorganisms from high concentration of ammonia fertilizer applied in
bands is usually short-term, and only in the zone of application. Angus et al. [
] reported that injection
of urea and ammonia in bands generally exhibited a short-term effect on microbial activity in the
soil. Total microbial activity was reduced in narrow bands of application for a period of 5 weeks,
after which levels returned to normal. However, an 80% reduction in the number of protozoa did
not return to normal after 5 weeks. On the other hand, there was a large increase in the number of
nitrifying bacteria in the soil 5 weeks after application of urea/ammonia in bands. Geiseller and
Scow [
] carried out a meta-analysis based on 107 data sets from 64 long-term experiments from
around the world and revealed that application of mineral fertilizers resulted in a significant increase
(15.1%) in the microbial biomass above levels in the no-fertilizer control treatments. Where soil pH
was 7 or higher, the fertilizer induced increase in microbial biomass averaged 48%, but fertilizer
Agronomy 2018,8, 48 9 of 19
application tended to reduce microbial biomass in soils with a pH below 5 (Table 5). Furthermore,
the increase in microbial biomass was the highest in experiments that were in place for at least 20 years.
Biederbeck et al. [
] also reported little impact on soil microbial populations when urea and anhydrous
ammonia were applied continuously for 10 years. The arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi biomass was
increased by application of N and P fertilizer in the N- and P-deficient sites, respectively [74].
Table 5.
Unweighted averages of soil microbial biomass C (mg kg
) in fertilizer N (+N) and no-N
treatments in 64 non-lowland rice long-term experiments from all over the world.
Number of Data Sets Soil Microbial Biomass C (mg kg1)
no-N +N
All data sets 107 238 268
pH in +N treatment: <5 17 240 213
pH in +N treatment: 5–7 39 234 253
pH in +N treatment: 7 or higher 17 139 205
Duration of long-term experiment: 5–10 years 18 300 239
Duration of long-term experiment: 10–20 years 34 227 270
Duration of long-term experiment: 20 years or longer
55 224 276
Modified from Geiseller and Scow [44].
That tilling of soil leads to decline of its health is also revealed by changes in microbial community
structure assessed using phospholipid fatty acid analysis and automated ribosomal intergenic spacer
analysis [
]. In a study conducted by Doran [
], microbial biomass and potentially mineralizable
N levels of no-tillage soils averaged 54% and 37% higher, respectively, than those in the ploughed soils.
In a meta-analysis based on 139 observations from 62 studies, Zuber and Villamil [
] inferred that
microbial biomass and enzyme activities were greater under no-till as compared to in the tilled soils.
Therefore, in conventionally tilled fertilized soils the reduced microbial activity is due to cultivation of
soils rather than the effect of fertilizer application.
Over-use of mineral fertilizers and excessive tillage can affect biological communities in the soil
by damaging their habitats and disrupting their functions [
]. Over-use of fertilizer, particularly
N, is like enrichment of ecosystems with reactive N. Using a meta-analysis based on 82 published
field studies, Treseder [
] reported that microbial biomass declined 15% on average under heavy
N fertilization, but fungi and bacteria were not significantly altered in studies that examined each
group separately. Declines in abundance of microbes and fungi were more evident in studies of longer
durations and with higher total amounts of N added.
5. Potential Contribution of Nitrogen Fertilizers to Soil Acidity
Nitrogen fertilizers can exert indirect negative effects on soil health arising through lowering of
soil pH due to natural transformations of N in the soil. Soil pH is one of the most influential factors
affecting the microbial community in soil. As shown in Table 5, while fertilizer-induced increase in
microbial population in long-term experiments was observed at soil pH 7 or higher, a reduction in
microbial biomass was observed in soils with a pH below 5. In a silt loam soil on which barley has
been continuously grown for more than 100 years, Rousk et al. [
] observed a fivefold decrease in
bacterial growth and a fivefold increase in fungal growth due to lowering of pH from 8.3 to 4.0.
Form of fertilizer N applied (NO
, NH
, urea), fertilizer product type (for example, ammonium
nitrate, calcium ammonium nitrate), the net balance between proton-producing and consuming
processes, and the buffering capacity of the soil dictate the extent of soil acidification due to application
of fertilizer N. Buffering capacity of the soil as determined by the presence of solid-phase calcium
carbonate resists change in soil pH due to N transformations [
]. In arid and semi-arid areas of
the world, soils are generally calcareous and thus highly buffered. In temperate regions, soils are
generally neutral or slightly acidic in reaction, whereas tropical soils are usually highly weathered
and generally acidic with little or no buffering capacity. During the acidification process, base cations
Agronomy 2018,8, 48 10 of 19
such as calcium and magnesium are released from the soil. With continued addition of fertilizer N,
the base cations get depleted and aluminum (Al
) is released from soil minerals, often reaching toxic
levels that induce nutrient disorders in plants. Guo et al. [
] reported severe soil acidification in large
crop production areas in China following application of high fertilizer N rates between the 1980s and
2000s. Based on strictly paired data available from 154 agricultural fields, top soils were significantly
acidified with an average pH decline of 0.50. Fertilizer N application released 20 to 221 kg hydrogen
ion (H
) ha
, and base cations uptake contributed a further 15 to 20 kg H
to soil
acidification. In Southern China, Lu et al. [
] observed that after application of ammonium nitrate
for 6 years, the site was showing high acidification [pH(H
O) < 4.0], negative water-extracted acid
neutralizing capacity, and low base saturation (<8%) throughout soil profiles.
6. Rational Use of Fertilizers Enhances Soil Health by Reducing Soil Erosion
Role of anthropogenic activities in causing soil erosion is very well documented [
], but the
connection between erodibility of the soil (defined as the susceptibility of a soil to become detached
and transported by wind, water, or ice) and crop production practices, especially the use of fertilizers,
is not well documented. Soil erosion is a problem when there is insufficient ground cover to protect
the soil and reduce the impact of rainfall and wind on the soil surface and when aggregate stability
is reduced due to limited SOC. Adequately fertilized crops will have extensive root system and top
growth. A well-developed canopy reduces the pounding effect of water drops from rain so that runoff
is reduced and erosion is minimized. Also, extensive root system developed in the well fertilized soil
helps hold soil in place and decreases the potential for soil loss in runoff water. Bhattacharyya et al. [
reported reduced loss of soil due to erosion by applying fertilizers to crops as compared to when no
fertilizer was applied. At 2% slope, soil loss by erosion was reduced by 7.2% and 11.7% by applying
fertilizer to sorghum (Sorghum bicolor) and chickpea (Cicer arietinum), respectively. According to Portch
and Jin [
], balanced fertilization of crops in China could reduce soil erosion. They further reported
that work conducted by International Board for Soil Research and Management (IBSRAM) in late
1980s in several Asian countries showed that fertilizer use alone could reduce soil erosion from 50 to
15 t ha1year1
. Biological N fixation and manure recycling are the only local nutrient sources that
are not always optimally exploited. The inability to match crop harvests with sufficient nutrient inputs
leads to depletion of nutrients and SOM, declining soil health, and increased risk of land degradation
through erosion.
7. Optimizing Fertilizer Management to Maintain Soil Health
A sustainable agricultural production system with good soil health having the capacity to produce
high yields with fewer external nutrient inputs can be developed using the correct combination of
ecosystem processes and appropriate use of fertilizers. Soils in agro-ecosystems should be able to
supply a certain minimum level of plant-available N and other essential nutrients at different growth
stages of crop plants. In principle, the concept of optimum fertilization aims at a dynamic balance
between nutrient requirement to obtain high yields and nutrient uptake by crops. This is achieved
by maintaining synchrony between nutrient demand of the crop and the supply of nutrients from all
sources including fertilizer and soil throughout the growing season of the crop.
Application of optimum doses of all nutrients is important, but due to fundamental coupling
of C and N cycles, optimization of fertilizer N management is more closely linked to build-up of
SOC and soil health. Concepts emerging from the work of Poffenbarger et al. [
] and depicted in
Figure 1suggest that when N inputs are below the optimum rate at which maximum yield is obtained,
applied N stimulates crop growth, increasing crop residue inputs to the soil and thereby increasing
SOC. Additionally, when fertilizer N inputs are above the optimum level, added N imparts no change
in crop residue production but increases residual inorganic N, which alleviates microbial N limitation
and thereby enhances mineralization of SOC [
]. However, crop response to N fertilization is
site-specific because there exists large spatial and temporal variability in soil N supply, which is in part
Agronomy 2018,8, 48 11 of 19
due to historical differences in management. Regional blanket fertilization recommendations cannot
account for this variability. Thus, site-specific nutrient management strategies based on principles of
synchronization of crop N demand with N supply from all sources including soil and fertilizer N can
ensure high yields along with maintenance of soil health. These can not only account for site-to-site
variability in optimum fertilizer rate but also resolve uncertainty regarding response of SOC build-up
to fertilizer application.
In the last two decades, site-specific real-time methods of N management that utilize crop
simulation models, remote sensing, or on-the-go crop sensing/variable-rate N spreaders to determine
the spatially variable needs for N at critical growth stages are increasingly being used to apply optimum
doses of fertilizer N to crops following synchrony principles. Whether implemented for crops in small
fields with little or no mechanization in developing countries or practiced as precision agriculture
for variable rate adjustment using on-the-go canopy reflectance spectra in large fields of developed
countries [87], the principles and objectives of site-specific N management are the same.
The first report of the Status of the World’s Soil Resources prepared by the Intergovernmental
Technical Panel on Soils lists nutrient imbalances (both nutrient deficiency and nutrient excess) as one of
the specific threats to soil functions [
]. In a long-term field trial with spring barley, Johnston et al. [
demonstrated that the grain yield increased by more than 50% with the same amount of fertilizer N only
when the plants were grown on a soil well supplied with K. Similarly, barley cultivated on a P-deficient
soil yielded only half of the crop, which was grown on a soil with adequate P, although receiving the
same amount of fertilizer N. Haerdter and Fairhurst [
] showed that the recovery of N from fertilizers
increased from 16% at traditional N and P fertilization levels to 76% at balanced application of N, P,
and K fertilizers. Kumar and Yadav [
] reported higher SOM content in plots in which N, P, and K
were applied in a balanced proportion on a long-term basis than in treatments receiving only N or
inadequate amounts of P (Figure 2). Similarly, Belay et al. [
] observed more SOC and soil microbial
biomass in the N, P, and K fertilizer treatment rather than in N, P, or K alone fertilizer treatments in
a long-term field experiment on maize-field pea rotation initiated in 1939 in South Africa.
Figure 2.
Effect of application of different combinations of N, P, and K fertilizers to rice–wheat cropping
system for 20 years on organic C content in the soil in a long-term experiment at Faizabad, India.
The numbers after N, P, and K indicate kg ha1. Data source: Kumar and Yadav [91].
In a 16-year long-term field experiment, Chu et al. [
] observed that balanced application of N, P,
and K fertilizers had a higher microbial biomass and activity than in the P- and N-deficient treatments.
Balanced fertilization resulted in higher dehydrogenase activity than under nutrient-deficiency
fertilization. In a 33-year long-term experiment in a brown soil in China, long-term N and P, as well
as N, P, and K, fertilizer application treatments exhibited greatly increased soil microbial biomass C
and dehydrogenase activity compared to in the only N treatment [
]. Similarly, in a 21-year long-term
experiment, Zhong et al. [
] observed that balanced fertilization with N, P, and K promoted the soil
microbial biomass, activity, and diversity and thus enhanced soil health, crop growth, and production.
In a wheat-maize cropping system in a fluvo-aquic soil in the North China Plain, Gong et al. [
] reported
Agronomy 2018,8, 48 12 of 19
that balanced application of N, P, and K fertilizers for 18 years showed higher C and N contents of the
light and heavy fractions, as well as more culturable microbial counts, than in unbalanced N and P, P
and K, or N and K fertilizer treatments.
8. Integrated Management of Fertilizers and Organic Manures for Improvement of Soil Health
With increasing awareness about soil health and sustainability in agriculture, organic manures
have regained importance, because these can supply precious organic matter, along with many different
nutrients, including micronutrients to the soil. Organic manures also influence the availability of
plant nutrients in the soil for plants by changing both the physical and biological characteristics of
the soil. The concept of integrated management of mineral fertilizers and organic manures became
the mainstay of soil fertility management practices at the turn of the 20th century, because it strives to
maintain/improve the fertility and health of the soil for sustained crop productivity on a long-term
basis [
]. Nutrients supplied through fertilizers are used to supplement those supplied by the
different organic sources available to farmers. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where the traditional farming
systems depend primarily on mining soil nutrients, the concept of integrated soil fertility management
based on the use of mineral fertilizers, organic inputs, and improved germplasm, combined with the
knowledge of adapting these practices to local conditions, has been introduced to intensify agriculture.
Fertilizers constitute an entry point for practicing integrated soil fertility management, which is
a field-specific strategy for increasing productivity, improving soil health, and a sustainable cropping
system [97].
In several long-term experiments initiated in 1970s with different cropping systems in various
agro-climatic zones in India, along with several other treatments, the two consisted of application
of optimum level of N, P, and K fertilizers with and without farmyard manure. Soil organic C in
different treatments estimated at the initiation of the experiments and 20 years later is shown in
Table 6. The data convincingly proves that integrated management of mineral fertilizers and farmyard
manure resulted in build-up of SOC more than in the fertilizer only treatment. Nevertheless, as already
discussed, application of optimum levels of N, P, and K fertilizers resulted in accumulation of SOC
more than in the control treatment to which neither fertilizer nor manure was applied. In recent
years, several other workers [
] have reported that the application of organic manures
along with mineral fertilizers increases SOM and different fractions of SOC more effectively than
the application of mineral fertilizers alone. Integrated management of organic manures and mineral
fertilizers rather than application of fertilizers alone not only has a positive impact on build-up of SOC
but also on soil health related microbial indicators like soil microbial biomass, soil bacterial community
diversities, and soil enzyme activities [67,103,104].
Table 6.
Changes in SOC due to application of optimum N, P, and K fertilizer levels with and without
farmyard manure for 20 years to different cropping systems in long-term experiments established in
different soil types in India.
Cropping System Location Soil SOC at
Initiation (%)
SOC after 20 Years (%)
Control N, P and K
N, P and K
Fertilizers +
Farmyard Manure
Inceptisol 0.27 0.41 0.59 0.76
Rice-wheat Pantnagar Mollisol 1.48 0.50 0.95 1.51
Rice-wheat Faizabad Inceptisol 0.37 0.19 0.40 0.50
Rice-wheat-jute Barrackpore Inceptisol 0.71 0.42 0.45 0.52
Rice-wheat-cowpea Pantnagar Mollisol 1.48 0.60 0.90 1.44
Maize-wheat Palampur Alfisol 0.79 0.62 0.83 1.20
Rice-wheat Karnal Alfisol 0.23 0.30 0.32 0.35
Cassava Trivandrum Ultisol 0.70 0.26 0.60 0.98
Data source: Nambiar [105], Swarup et al. [106].
Agronomy 2018,8, 48 13 of 19
In Sub-Saharan Africa, two types of soils have been recognized in terms of responsiveness to
mineral fertilizers. One type of soils are termed as responsive soils, because, due to nutrient mining,
crops grown in these soils respond to fertilizer application in a normal way. The other type of soils are
referred to as poor, less-responsive soils because these are highly degraded in terms of both extensive
nutrient mining and loss of SOM, and crops grown in these respond to fertilizer use minimally or
do not respond [
]. The degradation of soil to non-responsive state occurs due to discontinuous,
insufficient, or no fertilizer application over a certain period of time. When a certain threshold of soil
degradation is exceeded, this condition may not be reversible and soils may not respond immediately
to fertilizer or organic manure application so that crop productivity may not return to the level attained
before fertilizer use was discontinued. In a study conducted by Zingore et al. [
], response to fertilizer
application on less-responsive soils was observed only after application of 17 t ha
of farmyard
manure during three consecutive years. Once the soil became responsive to fertilizers, improvement in
agronomic efficiency and soil health could be achieved through integrated nutrient management of
fertilizers and farmyard manure. This unique interaction of organic manures and fertilizers seems to
be very valuable in dealing with soils degraded due to long history of nutrient depletion.
9. Conclusions and Policy Implications
Nitrogen fertilizers, when applied at rates less than the optimum at which maximum yields are
obtained, stimulate crop growth, leading to increasing crop residue inputs to the soil and, in turn,
increasing the rate of soil organic storage. Until and unless fertilizer N acidifies the soil to pH < 5,
the application of fertilizer at optimal rate generally has a positive effect on soil biota. The balanced
application of N, P, and K fertilizers results in further significant improvement in the soil health in
terms of increased SOC and soil microbial biomass. The uptake of N by crop plants is generally greater
from native soil N than from N applied as fertilizers. As a decline in SOM following the application of
fertilizer N is not a general phenomenon, a spiral of decline in soil functioning and crop productivity due
to fertilizer N use is not expected. Application of fertilizers more than the optimum level can not only
adversely influence biological communities in the soil but may also result in increased residual inorganic
N, which can enhance SOC mineralization and loss of SOC. Because there exists large spatial and
temporal variability in soil N supply, crop response to N fertilization is site-specific. Thus, site-specific
nutrient management strategies based on principles of synchronization of crop N demand with N
supply from all sources including soil and fertilizer N hold great potential for ensuring high yields of
crops along with maintenance or improvement in soil health.
Soil and agronomic research reviewed and analysed in this paper shows that sustainable
agricultural intensification through application of fertilizer N and healthy soils are compatible
goals. The extent to which fertilizer N can contribute to economic and efficient crop production,
and concomitantly benefit the soil in terms of quality or health, is dictated by the adoption of
management practices that ensure that fertilizer N is not applied indiscriminately to agricultural
crops. Fertilizer N should never be applied in amounts greater than what is required to obtain optimum
yields. Ideally, fertilizer N should be managed on a site-specific basis, whether based on the nutrient
status of soil or plants in a given field, so that N is applied in the right amount and at a right time
according to the needs of the soil-plant system. The application of fertilizer N in a balanced proportion
with other nutrients and integrated nutrient management based on organic manures and fertilizers can
lead to further improvements in soil health.
The effect of temperature and moisture on SOM decomposition is very well documented in the
literature. However, hardly any studies are available in which the interaction effects of fertilizer N
and temperature and moisture on SOM decomposition are reported. This information is needed to
evaluate the effect of fertilizer use on soil health under different temperature and moisture regimes.
While studies related to soil health and fertilizer N are being reported from different climatic regions
of the world, models can be usefully employed to define the specific effects of rainfall or soil moisture
and soil temperature on fertilizer N-related soil health issues. The response of different microbial
Agronomy 2018,8, 48 14 of 19
groups to repeated applications of fertilizer N varies and depends on environmental and crop
management-related factors. As enough data are not available to understand the interactions among
environmental factors, fertilizer N rates and types, and specific groups of soil microorganisms, there is
a need to conduct studies to understand these complex interactions. Also, there is a need for adequate
documentation of the effect of fertilizer N on the stability of SOM and the fate of organic residues in the
long-term in different cropping systems. Long-term agronomic experiments involving the application
of fertilizers in different agro-ecological zones across the world can be used to generate information on
these lines. Increased soil salinity due to application of mineral fertilizers can deteriorate soil health,
but N fertilizers based on sodium salts are no longer applied to field crops. In the quest to reduce
the cost of cultivation and possibly maintain and/or improve soil health, in many parts of the world
conservation agriculture systems are being adopted. In these systems, soil is tilled to a minimum
extent and crop residues are retained in the soil so as to help build up of SOM. There is a need to
establish appropriate fertilizer management strategies in such systems so that soil health is maintained
or improved.
Conflicts of Interest: The authors declare no conflicts of interest.
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... The conventional nitrogen fertilizer, urea, also has low nutrient use efficiency (<50%) and a large proportion of it gets wasted due to leaching and volatilisation (Stevens, 2019;Singh, 2018). Further, due to its low efficiency, over-use of urea is a common practice in Punjab and its neighbouring states in India. ...
... The data for the past few years indicates that the yield is stagnating with excess use of conventional fertilisers (Moe et al., 2019;Whitehead et al., 2018;Chivenge et al., 2021). Increasing costs of fertilisers, low yield benefit, multiple nutritional deficiencies, and environmental pollution are important concerns (Singh, 2018). These issues are compelling for the development of suitable and environment-friendly agri-inputs that has higher nutrient use efficiency and benefit to cost ratio value with reduced negative impacts on the quality of produce, natural resources, and environment (Zulfiqar et al., 2019). ...
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The use of nanoparticles as plant nutrient supplementing source serves as an advanced and sustainable solution to significantly reduce the standard application dosages of conventional fertilisers while simultaneously enhancing the crop health and yield. This would lead to the overall minimization of carbon footprint generated from agriculture. Adequate supply of macronutrients like nitrogen is a key determinant for the crop productivity. Urea is the most favoured conventional nitrogen fertilizer used by farmers across the globe, however, it has low nutrient use efficiency, and more than half of the applied volume gets dissipated in the various environmental pockets. Urea nanoparticles (TNU) developed by using a precise bio-fermentation method has been evaluated in this study as a Nitrogen supplement to urea when the recommended dosage of urea is reduced by 25 and 50%. The prominent maize-rice cropping system during Kharif season of agriculture in India was investigated. Ten treatments having various combinations of conventional and nano nitrogen sources were laid out under the randomised complete block design (RCBD) in the fields of Punjab Agriculture University, India. In various treatments, TNU was applied through foliar applications and seed dressing. From the results, it was observed that the fertilising treatment having the combination of 75% dose of the conventional fertiliser in addition with TNU applications as the supplementary nitrogen source, outperformed the other treatments in terms of growth, yield and cost to benefit parameters in case of both maize and rice crops. The outcomes of the study showed that the biologically developed urea nanoparticles can safely reduce a minimum of 25% of the recommended dose of the conventional urea fertilizer, which may be introduced as a more sustainable and economical agricultural practice.
... Wheat (Triticum aestivum L.), the major staple crop in Pakistan, is grown on both irrigated and rainfed land. The area, production and yield in Pakistan during the period 2009-2010 were 9.042 million hectares, 23.87 (24) million tons and 2716 kg ha −1 , respectively (Agricultural Statistics of KP, 2009KP, -2010. Pakistan produces 4.8 million tons of urea, while the country requirement is around 5.6 million tons, leaving a gap of 0.8 million tons in supply and demand. ...
... Grzebisz et al. [22] reported that nitrogen fertilization is very important to improve soil fertility and maximize crop productivity. The application of nitrogen fertilizer contributes to an 18-34% increase in soil residual N [23] and a 4-9.4% increase in mineralization from total soil N [24]. In the previous chapter, our study presented showed a significantly higher total soil nitrogen (g kg −1 soil) for treatment with 50% N from urea + 50% N from FYM + BM, followed by the treatment receiving 50% N from urea + 50% N from (FYM + PM) + BM and 50% N from urea + 50% N from PM + BM, respectively, as compared to the control treatment plot. ...
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The use of beneficial microbes as biofertilizer has become fundamental in the agricultural sector for their potential role in food safety and sustainable crop production. A field trial was conducted to study the influence of beneficial microbes on the efficiency of organic and inorganic sources. The experiment was conducted in two consecutive years (a farmer's field at Dargai Malakand Division. A randomized complete block design was used with four replications. The results revealed a significantly higher straw and grain nitrogen concentrations for the treatments receiving 50% N from urea + 50% N from FYM + BM, followed by the treatments receiving 50% N from urea + 50% N from (FYM + PM) + BM and 120 kg N ha −1 from urea fertilizer, respectively. Comparing the relevant treatments with and without BM, an increasing trend in N concentrations in straw and grain was observed with BM. The results revealed the highest grain total nitrogen, straw total nitrogen and total nitrogen uptake by wheat crop for the treatments receiving 120 kg N ha −1 from urea, followed by the treatments receiving 50% N from urea + 50% N from PM + BM and 50% N from urea + 50% N from (FYM + PM) + BM. Moreover, after comparing the relevant treatments with and without BM, for the parameters mentioned, an increasing trend in nitrogen uptake was observed. Significantly higher total soil nitrogen was obtained for treatment with 50% N from urea + 50% N from FYM + BM, followed by the treatment with 50% N from urea + 50% N from (FYM + PM) + BM or 50% N from urea + 50% N from PM + BM, respectively, as compared to the control treatment plot. Markedly higher soil mineral nitrogen was obtained for the 50% N from urea + 50% N from (FYM + PM) + BM treatment, followed by the treatment with 50% N from urea + 50% N from FYM + BM and 50% N treatment from urea + 50% N from PM + BM, compared to the control treatment. Comparing the relevant treatments with and without BM, an increasing trend in total soil N (g kg −1 soil) and soil mineral N (mg kg −1 soil) was noted with BM Citation: Muhammad, H.; Fahad, S.; Saud, S.; Hassan, S.; Nasim, W.; Ali, B.; Hammad, H.M.; Bakhat, H.F.; Mubeen, M.; Khan, A.Z.; et al. A Paradigm Shift towards Beneficial Microbes Enhancing the Efficiency of Organic and Inorganic Nitrogen Sources for a Sustainable Environment. Land 2023, 12, 680. https://doi.
... These three components strongly interact and work together to maintain the nutritional value of soil and frame soil ecosystem 15 . Several environmental factors influence the soil properties, nutritional quality, and fertility of soil [16][17] . ...
... Soil organic carbon (SOC) and total nitrogen (STN) contents are often used as indicators to monitor soil health or quality (Cardoso et al., 2013;Singh, 2018). Indeed, SOC regulates chemical, physical and biological processes in soil by affecting nutrient availability, water holding capacity, aggregation turnover and stability, and microbial activity (Herrick and Wander, 2018). ...
Agricultural activities through conventional and intensive practices contribute to climate change by increasing emission of reactive carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) from soils to the atmosphere. Minimum soil disturbance, appropriate residue management and cover cropping as conservation practices are perceived as key strategies to limit GHGs emissions by increasing soil C and N sequestration as soil organic matter (SOM), thus promoting soil aggregation and enhancing soil fertility. Yet, the actual contribution of conservation practices to C and N sequestration, as well as mechanisms behind chemical and biochemical stabilization of SOM in the long-term are still controversial. In the present 9-year field study on a wheat-maize-soybean rotation we investigated the effect of no-till (NT) coupled with grass vs. legume cover crop (i.e., rye [Secale cereale L., NT-R] or hairy vetch [Vicia villosa Roth, NT-V]) on main crop yields, C and N input by cover and main crops, soil aggregation and C and N sequestration rates, in comparison with conventional tillage (CT). We hypothesized that NT-R may lead to higher biomass input, C sequestration and comparable yield to CT, while NT-V may increase N input, N sequestration and lead to comparable yield to CT. We found that yield of winter wheat, maize, and soybean were never reduced under both NT treatments, neither during the transition phase, nor afterwards. Rye and hairy vetch provided the same amount of biomass and C input, although vetch doubled N input compared with rye. Moreover NT-V increased cumulative biomass and C input from main crop residues compared with NT-R. Both NT-R and NT-V promoted C (+0.4 Mg ha − 1 y − 1 and +0.6 Mg ha − 1 y − 1 , respectively) and N (+88 kg ha − 1 y − 1 and +145 kg ha − 1 y − 1 , respectively) soil sequestration, mainly due to the increase of macroaggregate-associated C and N, thus corroborating a major role of NT for macroaggregates formation and SOM stabilization within macroag-gregates. Since no difference was found between cover crops in terms of biomass input, and C and N seques-tration potential, we concluded that cover crop biomass production (rather than biomass quality) and retention onto the soil as residue were the main drivers of soil C and N sequestration. Therefore, both rye and hairy vetch may be combined with NT and promise significant potential as effective C farming practices.
... :4), ±SEM, n = 5, ns = not significant, P < 0.05 = significant at 5%*, P < 0.01 = significant at 1%**; same symbol in superscript do not differ significantly (P > 0.05). positive influence on the microbial activitiy, however excess fertilizer application may deteriorate the microbial activity [40]. A few enzymes such as dehydrogenase, phosphatase have the potentials as indicators of viable soil microbial biomass activity. ...
... However, intensive agricultural practices are raising specific concerns about the possible occurrence of adverse effects from applying very high fertiliser doses [5]. The excessive and inappropriate use of nitrogen fertilisers reduces soil fertility by upsetting the ionic balance between components, reducing microbial growth and activity and inducing salinity [6]. Over-fertilisation can also contribute to groundwater and surface water contamination through nitrate leaching [7], exacerbate the so-called "greenhouse effect" and the acid rain phenomenon [8], and induce acidification. ...
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The plants cultivated in loamy sand contained less iron, manganese, copper, cobalt, nickel, and zinc while containing more chromium, lead, and cadmium than in sand. This study was launched to use organic materials in the form of humic acids (HA) to reduce the potential negative effects of excessive nitrogen fertiliser (ammonium nitrate, urea, and urea and ammonium nitrate solution—UAN) application rates (160 mg N kg−1 soil) on the trace element contents in maize in two soils differing in granulometric composition. HA were applied into the soil three times during the maize vegetation: before the sowing, at the five-leaf unfolded stage, and at the intensive shoot growth stage. The HA doses amounted to 0, 0.05, 0.10, and 0.15 g kg−1 soil. Urea fertilisation increased the cadmium, lead, chromium, and nickel contents and reduced the iron content in maize on both soils. UAN contributed to an increased chromium content being higher than that caused by urea and to reduced iron content in the aboveground parts of maize, as compared to the objects with ammonium nitrate. In the series with ammonium nitrate, the highest dose of HA reduced the manganese, zinc, iron, and cobalt contents in maize on both soils. In the series with urea, however, their reducing effect on the copper and iron contents in maize on both soils was noted. The study also demonstrated a positive reduction in the contents of many other trace elements in maize under the influence of the application of HA (particularly, their highest dose). However, it only concerned one of the soils under study. The application of HA into the soil can be effective in reducing the trace element content in plants and can mitigate the adverse environmental impact of intensive agricultural production.
... The increased rice production rate is not matched by an awareness of the protection of the soil, which is the primary medium of biomass production. Facts show that soil health decreases due to intensification practices carried out in conventional agriculture [3]. Declining soil health impacts the decline in soil quality [4], which will impact the productivity and quality of rice and human health. ...
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Soil is a vital non-renewable natural resource for food production. Healthy, nutritious, and good-quality food is only produced through healthy soil. As the essential food commodity in Indonesia, rice is mainly cultivated in heavily degraded paddy soil, characterized by low organic C content and available N, P, and K nutrients. The challenges of increasing food demand due to increasing population, narrow agricultural land, and climate change lead to severe pressure on paddy fields. Monitoring soil quality is necessary to prevent the ongoing degradation of rice fields and threaten food security. This paper is a literature review that reveals the importance of evaluating soil quality and determining the limiting factors so that a soil health-based paddy soil management strategy can be sought to sustain food security.
Integrated use of chemical fertilizers with organic manure is becoming a quite promising practice to maintain higher crop productivity and to manage soil health, which is otherwise deteriorated due to intensive cultivation and imbalanced fertilizer use. Thus, the present experiment was conducted for combined application of inorganic fertilizers and organic manures for higher yield and nutrient uptake in basmati rice as well as to restore soil health. The treatments applied in the present study involve T1: control, T2: Farmyard manure (15 t ha−1), T3: Poultry manure (6 t ha−1), T4: Press mud (15 t ha−1), T5: Rice straw compost (6 t ha−1), T6: Farmyard manure (15 t ha−1) + 50% N (recommended dose of nitrogen), T7: Poultry manure (6 t ha−1) + 50% N, T8: Press mud (15 t ha−1) + 50% N, T9: Rice straw compost (6 t ha−1) + 50% N, T10: 75% N, T11: Farmyard manure (15 t ha1) + 75% N, T12: Poultry manure (6 t ha−1) + 75% N, T13: Press mud (15 t ha−1) + 75% N, T14: Rice straw compost (6 t ha−1) + 75% N, T15: 100% N. The integrated use of organic manures and inorganic fertilizers significantly increased the grain and straw yield, macronutrients as well as micronutrients uptake in basmati due to the release of nutrients from decomposition of organic manures. Among different treatments, the addition of PM+75% N showed maximum grain yield, straw yield and sustainability yield index (44.53 q ha−1, 89.67 q ha−1 and 0.91 respectively) as well as the highest uptake of nitrogen (58.29 and 65.39 kg ha−1), phosphorus (25.04 and 23.24 kg ha−1) and potassium (15.26 and 118.95 kg ha−1) in grain and straw, respectively. Similar results were observed for zinc (Zn), copper (Cu), iron (Fe) and manganese (Mn) uptake under treatment involving PM+75% N with values 183.9, 26.18, 339.3 and 355.8 g ha−1 in grain and 205.3, 25.62, 2627.3 and 278 g ha−1 in straw, respectively. Additionally, correlation studies showed that the grain and straw yield of basmati exhibited a significantly positive correlation with soil P, Cu and Fe. The study suggested that the partial substitution of inorganic fertilizers with organic manures did not lower crop yield and nutrient uptake. Thus, integrated application of organic and inorganic fertilizers can be used for the sustainability of basmati-wheat system and to retain the soil fertility which is otherwise deteriorated with sole use of inorganic fertilizers.
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The critical nitrogen (N) dilution curve, which expresses whole-plant critical N concentration as a function of shoot biomass, can be used as a N management diagnostic tool for cereals. The objectives of this research were to develop a critical N dilution curve for wheat grown in calcareous soils and to formulate a model for estimating N fertilizer requirement of wheat crop at different growth stages. Six N fertilization rates (0-250 kg N ha −1) were used to induce variability in plant growth throughout six site-years (three locations at West Delta of Egypt and two seasons [2020/21-2021/22]). Aboveground shoot bio-mass (W; Mg DM [dry matter] ha −1) and N concentration (N c ; g kg −1 DM) were determined on five sampling dates during the growing season. A critical N dilution curve was developed as: N c = 50.141W −0.424. The N c dilution curve was then used to develop a N fertilizer topdressing strategy. The study relied on N nutrition index inferred from the N c based on N uptake, and instead of relying on a single N recovery efficiency coefficient, a variable N recovery efficiency was developed. This approach increased the hypothetical N requirements at low N application rates while decreased requirements at high N application rates, implying that the N c dilution curve can be used successfully to estimate the rates of supplemental N application. The developed strategy will provide a solid basis for precisely managing N fertilizer, though challenge ahead at the farm level will be in determining the actual shoot biomass and N concentration.
The nitrogen (N) demand of eucalyptus plantations is considered to be effectively supplemented by the addition of N‐fixing plants. However, the effects of intercropping combined with N fertilization on the enzyme activity, soil fertility and bacterial relationships, such as bacterial‐mediated nutrient cycling, remain elusive. A pot experiment was performed to assess the effect of intercropping and fertilization on eucalyptus productivity, soil fertility, enzyme activity, and bacterial characteristics, in addition to any probable linkages between these factors and how the interactions promote eco‐friendly production in Eucalyptus plantations. Intercropping Eucalyptus combined with suitable N fertilization (3 g plant‐1) resulted in a higher Chao1 and Shannon diversity of bacterial communities; increased soil fertility, pH, enzyme activity and Eucalyptus productivity; as well as generated a stronger positive interaction between dominant bacterial taxa and soil environmental variables. According to the network and structural equation model (SEM) analysis, the interaction between dominant bacterial taxa and soil environmental variables was clearly linked to N application, and deficient or excess N fertilizer may exert a detrimental effect on Eucalyptus productivity. This suggests that reasonable N application in intercropping is a potentially sustainable solution for maintaining Eucalyptus productivity and soil quality under N‐limited conditions.
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Background The loss of carbon (C) from agricultural soils has been, in part, attributed to tillage, a common practice providing a number of benefits to farmers. The promotion of less intensive tillage practices and no tillage (NT) (the absence of mechanical soil disturbance) aims to mitigate negative impacts on soil quality and to preserve soil organic carbon (SOC). Several reviews and meta-analyses have shown both beneficial and null effects on SOC due to no tillage relative to conventional tillage, hence there is a need for a comprehensive systematic review to answer the question: what is the impact of reduced tillage intensity on SOC? Methods We systematically reviewed relevant research in boreo-temperate regions using, as a basis, evidence identified within a recently completed systematic map on the impacts of farming on SOC. We performed an update of the original searches to include studies published since the map search. We screened all evidence for relevance according to predetermined inclusion criteria. Studies were appraised and subject to data extraction. Meta-analyses were performed to investigate the impact of reducing tillage [from high (HT) to intermediate intensity (IT), HT to NT, and from IT to NT] for SOC concentration and SOC stock in the upper soil and at lower depths. Results A total of 351 studies were included in the systematic review: 18% from an update of research published in the 2 years since the systematic map. SOC concentration was significantly higher in NT relative to both IT [1.18 g/kg ± 0.34 (SE)] and HT [2.09 g/kg ± 0.34 (SE)] in the upper soil layer (0–15 cm). IT was also found to be significant higher [1.30 g/kg ± 0.22 (SE)] in SOC concentration than HT for the upper soil layer (0–15 cm). At lower depths, only IT SOC compared with HT at 15–30 cm showed a significant difference; being 0.89 g/kg [± 0.20 (SE)] lower in intermediate intensity tillage. For stock data NT had significantly higher SOC stocks down to 30 cm than either HT [4.61 Mg/ha ± 1.95 (SE)] or IT [3.85 Mg/ha ± 1.64 (SE)]. No other comparisons were significant. Conclusions The transition of tilled croplands to NT and conservation tillage has been credited with substantial potential to mitigate climate change via C storage. Based on our results, C stock increase under NT compared to HT was in the upper soil (0–30 cm) around 4.6 Mg/ha (0.78–8.43 Mg/ha, 95% CI) over ≥ 10 years, while no effect was detected in the full soil profile. The results support those from several previous studies and reviews that NT and IT increase SOC in the topsoil. Higher SOC stocks or concentrations in the upper soil not only promote a more productive soil with higher biological activity but also provide resilience to extreme weather conditions. The effect of tillage practices on total SOC stocks will be further evaluated in a forthcoming project accounting for soil bulk densities and crop yields. Our findings can hopefully be used to guide policies for sustainable management of agricultural soils.
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The effects of organic and mineral fertilization on four soil organic matter (SOM) fractions (non-protected, physically protected, chemically protected, and biochemically protected) and microbial community composition were investigated by sampling soil of a 35-year-long fertilization experiment. The SOM fractions were investigated by combined physical and chemical approaches, while microbial community composition was determined by phospholipid fatty acid analysis (PLFA). Organic C (SOC) was primarily distributed within the microaggregate-protected particulate organic matter (iPOM) and the hydrolysable and non-hydrolysable silt-sized (H-Silt, NH-Silt) fractions, which accounted for 11.6–16.9, 23.4–28.9, and 25.4–30.6% of the total SOC content, respectively. The contributions of these “slow” fractions (iPOM, H-Silt, NH-Silt) to the increased SOC were 178–293, 118–209, and 85–109% higher after long-term sole manure or manure in combination with inorganic N fertilization compared with unfertilized soil (control). The combination of manure and mineral fertilizers increased the coarse and fine non-protected C (cPOM and fPOM) contents much more (34.1–60.7%) than did manure alone. PLFAs, bacteria, G (+) bacteria, and actinomycete abundances were the highest in soil with manure, followed by soil treated with manure combined with mineral N. The addition of inorganic and organic fertilization both altered the microbial community composition compared with the control. All SOM fractions contributed to 81.1% of the variance of the PLFAs-related microbial community composition by direct and indirect effects. The change in coarse unprotected particulate organic matter (cPOM) was the major factor affecting soil microbial community composition (p < 0.001). Our study indicates that physical, chemical, and biochemical protection mechanisms are important in maintaining high SOC level after the addition of manure. A close linkage between soil microbial community composition and cPOM suggests that C availability is an important factor for influencing microbial composition after long-term inorganic and organic fertilization.
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Nitrogen fertilization is critical to optimize short-term crop yield, but its long-term effect on soil organic C (SOC) is uncertain. Here, we clarify the impact of N fertilization on SOC in typical maize-based (Zea mays L.) Midwest U.S. cropping systems by accounting for site-to-site variability in maize yield response to N fertilization. Within continuous maize and maize-soybean [Glycine max (L.) Merr.] systems at four Iowa locations, we evaluated changes in surface SOC over 14 to 16 years across a range of N fertilizer rates empirically determined to be insufficient, optimum, or excessive for maximum maize yield. Soil organic C balances were negative where no N was applied but neutral (maize-soybean) or positive (continuous maize) at the agronomic optimum N rate (AONR). For continuous maize, the rate of SOC storage increased with increasing N rate, reaching a maximum at the AONR and decreasing above the AONR. Greater SOC storage in the optimally fertilized continuous maize system than in the optimally fertilized maize-soybean system was attributed to greater crop residue production and greater SOC storage efficiency in the continuous maize system. Mean annual crop residue production at the AONR was 22% greater in the continuous maize system than in the maize-soybean system and the rate of SOC storage per unit residue C input was 58% greater in the monocrop system. Our results demonstrate that agronomic optimum N fertilization is critical to maintain or increase SOC of Midwest U.S. cropland.
15 N isotope tracer Added nitrogen interaction Mineralization and immobilization ⁠ 15 N labeled fertilizer Plant-soil interaction Rhizosphere priming ABSTRACT Fertilizer inputs affect plant uptake of native soil nitrogen (N), yet the underlying mechanisms remain elusive. To increase mechanistic insight into this phenomenon, we evaluated the effect of fertilizer addition on mineral-ization (in the absence of plants) and plant uptake of native soil N. We synthesized 43 isotope tracer (⁠ 15 N) studies and estimated the effects of fertilizer addition using meta-analysis. We found that organic fertilizer tended to reduce native soil N mineralization (−99 kg ha ⁠ −1 year ⁠ −1 ; p = 0.09) while inorganic fertilizer tended to increase N priming (58 kg ha ⁠ −1 year ⁠ −1 ; p = 0.17). In contrast, both organic and inorganic fertilizers significantly increased plant uptake of native soil N (179 and 107 kg ha ⁠ −1 year ⁠ −1). Organic fertilizer had greater effect on plant uptake than on mineralization of native soil N (p < 0.001), but inorganic fertilizer had similar effects. Fertilizer effects on mineralization and plant uptake of native soil N were not influenced by study location (laboratory or field) and duration, soil texture, carbon and N content, and pH. Fertilizer addition variably affected native soil N mineralization but consistently increased plant uptake of native soil N. The positive effect of organic fertilizer on plant uptake of native soil N can not be explained by its negative effect on native soil N mineralization, suggesting that increased plant uptake of native soil N was caused mostly by plant-mediated mechanisms (e.g., increased root growth, rhizosphere N priming) rather than by soil microbe-mediated mechanisms.
Bacterial communities are important for the health and productivity of soil ecosystems and have great potential as novel indicators of environmental perturbations. To assess how they are affected by anthropogenic activity and to determine their ability to provide alternative metrics of environmental health, we sought to define which soil variables bacteria respond to across multiple soil types and land uses. We determined, through 16S rRNA gene amplicon sequencing, the composition of bacterial communities in soil samples from 110 natural or human-impacted sites, located up to 300 km apart. Overall, soil bacterial communities varied more in response to changing soil environments than in response to changes in climate or increasing geographic distance. We identified strong correlations between the relative abundances of members of Pirellulaceae and soil pH, members of Gaiellaceae and carbon-to-nitrogen ratios, members of Bradyrhizobium and the levels of Olsen P (a measure of plant available phosphorus), and members of Chitinophagaceae and aluminum concentrations. These relationships between specific soil attributes and individual soil taxa not only highlight ecological characteristics of these organisms but also demonstrate the ability of key bacterial taxonomic groups to reflect the impact of specific anthropogenic activities, even in comparisons of samples across large geographic areas and diverse soil types. Overall, we provide strong evidence that there is scope to use relative taxon abundances as biological indicators of soil condition.