Improving Nutrient Use Efficiency in Crops


Optimum use of mineral nutrients (fertilisers) by crops is essential for sustainable agricultural production. With increasing world demands for food and energy, this is set to become an ever‐increasing priority. Fertilisers are costly to produce and apply, both financially and environmentally. There is an absolute requirement to maximise efficiency using both agronomic and plant breeding approaches. Nutrient use efficiency may be defined as yield per unit fertiliser input or in terms of recovery of fertiliser applied. Improving yield alone may be at the expense of mineral nutrient content and hence quality, therefore yield improvements must be matched by appropriate increases in nutrient uptake. Multiple complex processes contribute to the overall nutrient use efficiency trait, and all are multigenic and developmentally and environmentally modulated. Key breeding traits for improvement includes root characteristics to enhance acquisition, canopy functioning for yield generation, and sink tissue attributes for final yield and quality aspects. Multidisciplinary approaches involving traditional breeding and biotechnology will contribute to future improvements.

Key Concepts:

  • Optimum use of mineral fertilisers by crops is essential for sustainable agriculture.

  • Some fertilisers are nonrenewal resources.

  • Nutrient use efficiency may be defined as yield per unit fertiliser input or in terms of recovery of fertiliser applied.

  • Nutrient use efficiency comprises two main traits, uptake efficiency and utilisation efficiency.

  • Agronomic practice is an important part of nutrient use efficiency.

  • Crop improvement may be targeted at roots, canopy or harvested material.

  • Root systems and transporters are required for capture of nutrients to produce an effective canopy.

  • An effective canopy will result in high yield.

  • Efficient captures and partitioning of nutrients contributes to quality components of crops.

  • Huge unexploited natural germplasm diversity for nutrient use efficiency exists for most crops.

Keywords: nutrient use efficiency; fertiliser; nitrogen; phosphorus; agriculture; crop breeding; transporters; roots; canopy; grain

Figure 1.

Grain yield, N leached and estimated NUE as a function of applied inorganic N fertiliser for winter wheat (cv. Apollo 1990–1995; cv. Hereward 1996–1998) on the Broadbalk experiment in 1990–1998. For the NUE calculation, the combined mineralised N+atmospheric inputs are approximated at 50 kg/ha for all plots (yield and leaching data: courtesy of Keith Goulding, Rothamsted Research).

Figure 2.

Illustration of nutrient use efficiency parameters exemplified by NUE in wheat. Key process contributing to the NUE trait: nitrogen uptake efficiency, NUpE; nitrogen utilisation efficiency, NUtE; nitrogen harvest index, NHI.

Figure 3.

The relative importance of NUE component traits varies during crop development.

Figure 4.

The major drivers and issues, and approaches for improving crop nutrient use efficiency.



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Further Reading

Blatt MR (2004) Membrane Transport in Plants, Annual Plant Reviews, vol. 15. Boca Raton (FL): Blackwell, CRC Press.

Hawkesford MJ and Barraclough P (2011) The Molecular and Physiological Basis of Nutrient Use efficiency in Crops. Chichester, UK: Wiley‐Blackwell.

Marschner P (2012) Marschner's Mineral nutrition of Higher Plants, 3rd edn. London, UK: Academic Press.

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Hawkesford, Malcolm John(Nov 2012) Improving Nutrient Use Efficiency in Crops. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0023734]