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Planetary boundaries for terrestrial inputs of reactive nitrogen (Nr) are transgressed and reducing the input of new Nr and its environmental impacts are major global challenges. Grain legumes fix dinitrogen (N2) in symbiosis with soil bacteria and use soil N sources, but often less efficient than cereals. Intercropping grain legumes with cereals may be a means of increasing use efficiency of soil N. Here, we estimate the global sole cropped grain legume acquisition of N from soil to approximately 14.2 Tg N year−1, which corresponds to one-third of the global synthetic fertilizer N use (109 Tg N year−1) for all crops, assuming that grain legumes recover on average 40% of the fertilizer N. Published data from grain legume-cereal intercrop experiments, employing stable 15N isotope methods, have shown that due to competitive interactions and complementary N acquisition in intercrops, the cereals recover a more than proportional share of the soil N sources. As a consequence, the intercropped legume derives more of its N from the atmosphere, compared with when it is grown as legume sole crop. We estimated that the increased N use efficiency in intercropping can reduce the requirements for fossil-based fertilizer N by about 26% on a global scale. In addition, our estimates indicate that if all current grain legume sole crops would instead be intercropped with cereals, a potential net land saving would be achieved, when also replacing part of the current cereal sole crop area with intercropping. Intercropping has additional potential advantages such as increased yield stability and yield per unit area, reduced pest problems and reduced requirements for agrochemicals, while stimulating biodiversity. It is concluded that crop diversification by intercropping has the potential to reduce global requirements for synthetic fertilizer N and consequently support the development of more sustainable cropping systems.
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