Fertilizer nitrogen recovery efficiencies in crop production systems of China with and without consideration of the residual effect of nitrogen
China is the world’s largest consumer of synthetic nitrogen (N), where very low rates of fertilizer N recovery in crops have been reported, raising discussion around whether fertilizer N use can be significantly reduced without yield penalties. However, using recovery rates as indicator ignores a possible residual effect of fertilizer N—a factor often unknown at large scales. Such residual effect might store N in the soil increasing N availability for subsequent crops. The objectives of the present study were therefore to quantify the residual effect of fertilizer N in China and to obtain more realistic rates of the accumulative fertilizer N recovery efficiency (RE) in crop production systems of China. Long-term spatially-extensive data on crop production, fertilizer N and other N inputs to croplands in China were used to analyze the relationship between crop N uptake and fertilizer N input (or total N input), and to estimate the amount of residual fertilizer N. Measurement results of cropland soil N content in two time periods were obtained to compare the change in the soil N pool. At the provincial scale, it was found that there is a linear relationship between crop N uptake and fertilizer N input or total N input. With the increase in fertilizer N input, annual direct fertilizer N RE decreased and was indeed low (below 30% in recent years), while its residual effect increased continuously, to the point that 40-68% of applied fertilizer was used for crop production sooner or later. The residual effect was evidenced by a buildup of soil N and a large difference between nitrogen use efficiencies of long-term and short-term experiments.