Life-cycle evaluation of nitrogen-use in rice-farming systems: implications for economically-optimal nitrogen rates
Abstract. Nitrogen (N) fertilizer plays an important role in agricultural systems in terms of food yield. However, N application rates (NARs) are often overestimated over the rice (Oryza sativa L.) growing season in the Taihu Lake region of China. This is largely because negative externalities are not entirely included when evaluating economically-optimal nitrogen rate (EONR), such as only individual N losses are taken into account, or the inventory flows of reactive N have been limited solely to the farming process when evaluating environmental and economic effects of N fertilizer. This study integrates important material and energy flows resulting from N use into a rice agricultural inventory that constitutes the hub of the life-cycle assessment (LCA) method. An economic evaluation is used to determine an environmental and economic NAR for the Taihu Lake region. The analysis reveals that production and exploitation processes consume the largest proportion of resources, accounting for 77.2 % and 22.3 % of total resources, respectively. Regarding environmental impact, global warming creates the highest cost with contributions stemming mostly from fertilizer production and farming processes. Farming process incurs the biggest environmental impact of the three environmental impact categories considered, whereas transportation has a much smaller effect. When taking account of resource consumption and environmental cost, the marginal benefit of 1 kg rice would decrease from 2.4 to only 1.05 yuan. Accordingly, our current EONR has been evaluated at 187 kg N ha−1 for a single rice-growing season. This could enhance profitability, as well as reduce the N losses associated with rice growing.