Crops, Nitrogen, Water: Are Legumes Friend, Foe, or Misunderstood Ally?

Mark A. Adams (Lead / Corresponding author), Nina Buchmann, Janet Sprent, Thomas N. Buckley, Tarryn L. Turnbull

    Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

    36 Citations (Scopus)


    Biological nitrogen fixation (BNF) by crop legumes reduces demand for industrial nitrogen fixation (INF). Nonetheless, rates of BNF in agriculture remain low, with strong negative feedback to BNF from reactive soil nitrogen (N) and drought. We show that breeding for yield has resulted in strong relationships between photosynthesis and leaf N in non-leguminous crops, whereas grain legumes show strong relations between leaf N and water use efficiency (WUE). We contrast these understandings with other studies that draw attention to the water costs of grain legume crops, and their potential for polluting the biosphere with N. We propose that breeding grain legumes for reduced stomatal conductance can increase WUE without compromising production or BNF. Legume crops remain a better bet than relying on INF.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)539-550
    Number of pages12
    JournalTrends in Plant Science
    Issue number6
    Early online date17 Mar 2018
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2018


    • crops
    • energy–water–food nexus
    • grain legumes
    • nitrogen
    • water use efficiency

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Plant Science


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