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Widespread use of the nitrification inhibitor nitrapyrin: Assessing benefits and costs to agriculture, ecosystems, and environmental health

January 12, 2021

Agricultural production and associated applications of nitrogen (N) fertilizers have increased dramatically in the last century, and current projections to 2050 show that demands will continue to increase as the human population grows. Applied in both organic and inorganic fertilizer forms, N is an essential nutrient in crop productivity. Increased fertilizer applications, however, create the potential for more N loss before plant uptake. One strategy for minimizing N loss is the use of enhanced efficiency fertilizers, fortified with a nitrification inhibitor, such as nitrapyrin. In soils and water, nitrapyrin inhibits the activity of ammonia monooxygenase, a microbial enzyme that catalyzes the first step of nitrification from ammonium to nitrite. Potential benefits of using nitrification inhibitors range from reduced nitrate leaching and nitrous oxide emissions to increased crop yield. The extent of these benefits, however, depends on environmental conditions and management practices. Thus, such benefits are not always realized. Additionally, nitrapyrin has been shown to transport off-field, and it is unknown what effects environmental nitrapyrin could have on nontarget organisms and the ecological nitrogen cycle. Here, we review the agronomic and environmental benefits and costs of nitrapyrin use and present a series of research questions and considerations to be addressed with future nitrification inhibitor research.