Enhanced-efficiency fertilizers are not a panacea for resolving the nitrogen problem

Glob Chang Biol. 2018 Feb;24(2):e511-e521. doi: 10.1111/gcb.13918. Epub 2017 Nov 2.


Improving nitrogen (N) management for greater agricultural output while minimizing unintended environmental consequences is critical in the endeavor of feeding the growing population sustainably amid climate change. Enhanced-efficiency fertilizers (EEFs) have been developed to better synchronize fertilizer N release with crop uptake, offering the potential for enhanced N use efficiency (NUE) and reduced losses. Can EEFs play a significant role in helping address the N management challenge? Here we present a comprehensive analysis of worldwide studies published in 1980-2016 evaluating four major types of EEFs (polymer-coated fertilizers PCF, nitrification inhibitors NI, urease inhibitors UI, and double inhibitors DI, i.e. urease and nitrification inhibitors combined) regarding their effectiveness in increasing yield and NUE and reducing N losses. Overall productivity and environmental efficacy depended on the combination of EEF type and cropping systems, further affected by biophysical conditions. Best scenarios include: (i) DI used in grassland (n = 133), averaging 11% yield increase, 33% NUE improvement, and 47% decrease in aggregated N loss (sum of NO3- , NH3 , and N2 O, totaling 84 kg N/ha); (ii) UI in rice-paddy systems (n = 100), with 9% yield increase, 29% NUE improvement, and 41% N-loss reduction (16 kg N/ha). EEF efficacies in wheat and maize systems were more complicated and generally less effective. In-depth analysis indicated that the potential benefits of EEFs might be best achieved when a need is created, for example, by downward adjusting N application from conventional rate. We conclude that EEFs can play a significant role in sustainable agricultural production but their prudent use requires firstly eliminating any fertilizer mismanagement plus the implementation of knowledge-based N management practices.

Keywords: ammonia loss; biophysical conditions; enhanced efficiency fertilizers; nitrate leaching; nitrogen management; nitrous oxide emission.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Agriculture / methods*
  • Climate Change*
  • Crops, Agricultural / growth & development
  • Crops, Agricultural / metabolism
  • Fertilizers*
  • Nitrogen*


  • Fertilizers
  • Nitrogen