Main content area

Irrigation leads to greater maize yield at higher water productivity and lower environmental costs: a global meta-analysis

Zheng, Huifang, Ying, Hao, Yin, Yulong, Wang, Yingcheng, He, Gang, Bian, Qianqian, Cui, Zhenling, Yang, Qinghua
Agriculture, ecosystems & environment 2019 v.273 pp. 62-69
NPK fertilizers, ammonia, bulk density, emissions factor, fossil fuels, grain yield, greenhouse gas emissions, greenhouse gases, intensive farming, irrigated conditions, irrigation rates, irrigation scheduling, irrigation systems, leaching, meta-analysis, nitrates, nitrogen, nitrous oxide, risk, soil organic matter, temperature, transportation
Irrigated maize production has increased in the world; however, a comprehensive assessment on how irrigation affects yield, water productivity (WP), and the environment under agricultural intensification on a global scale is paid little attention. In this study, we report the trade-offs among grain yield, WP, reactive nitrogen (Nr) losses, and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in response to irrigation management using a global meta-analysis of field experimental data published in peer-reviewed journals prior to May 2018. A total of 1490 paired data points from 162 publications and 21 counties showed that grain yield increased by 30.35% from 7357 kg ha−1 in non-irrigated systems to 9512 kg ha−1 in irrigation systems (146 mm). Similarly, WP increased by 9.91% from 19.1 to 20.5 kg ha−1 mm−1. These increases in yield and WP varied depending on seasonal irrigation amounts, precipitation levels, annual average temperature, N application, soil organic matter, and bulk density. Based on 270 peer-reviewed publications, the emission factors (EFs) of Nr losses in irrigation systems via NH3 emissions decreased by 9.3%, N2O emissions decreased by 42.3%, and NO3− leaching increased by 36.1%, compared with non-irrigated systems. Calculated yield-scaled Nr losses decreased by 10.3% from 5.94 kg N Mg−1 in non-irrigated systems to 5.32 kg N Mg−1 in irrigated systems. Correspondingly, yield-scaled GHG emissions including field emissions; fossil fuel from irrigation pumping, N, P, K fertilizer production and transportation; and field management were 22–28% lower under irrigated conditions than non-irrigated system. This finding highlights the multiple benefits of protecting environments and improving WP through irrigation to attain higher maize yield. However, there are trade-offs to this approach, including increased leaching and the risk of a future water resource crisis.