Balancing indicators for sustainable intensification of crop production at field and river basin levels

Abebe Demissie Chukalla*, Pytrik Reidsma, Michelle T.H. van Vliet, João Vasco Silva, Martin K. van Ittersum, Seifeddine Jomaa, Michael Rode, Ines Merbach, Pieter R. van Oel

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

18 Citations (Scopus)


Adequate tools for evaluating sustainable intensification (SI) of crop production for agro-hydrological system are not readily available. Building on existing concepts, we propose a framework for evaluating SI at the field and river basin levels. The framework serves as a means to assess and visualise SI indicator values, including yield, water-use efficiency and nitrogen-use efficiency (NUE), alongside water and nitrogen surpluses and their effects on water quantity and quality. To demonstrate the SI assessment framework, we used empirical data for both the field level (the Static Fertilization Experiment at Bad Lauchstädt) and the river basin level (the Selke basin, 463 km2) in central Germany. Crop yield and resource use efficiency varied considerably from 1980 to 2014, but without clear trends. NUE frequently fell below the desirable range (<50%), exposing the environment to a large N surplus (>80 kg N ha−1). For the catchment as a whole, the average nitrate-N concentration (3.6 mg L−1) was slightly higher than the threshold of 2.5 mg L−1 nitrate-N in surface water. However, weather and climate-related patterns, due to their effects on transport capacity and dilution, influenced water quantity and quality indicators more than agronomic practices. To achieve SI of crop production in the Selke basin, irrigation and soil moisture management are required to reduce yield variability and reduce N surpluses at field level. In addition, optimum application of fertiliser and manure could help to reduce the nitrate-N concentration below the set water quality standards in the Selke basin. In this way, there is scope for increase in yields and resource use efficiencies, and thus potential reduction of environmental impacts at basin level. We conclude that the framework is useful for assessing sustainable production, by simultaneously considering objectives related to crop production, resource-use efficiency and environmental quality, at both field and river basin levels.

Original languageEnglish
Article number135925
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Publication statusPublished - 25 Feb 2020


  • Crop production
  • Nitrogen-use efficiency
  • Selke Basin
  • Sustainable intensification
  • Water quality and quantity indicators
  • Water-use efficiency


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