The challenges of how to simultaneously ensure global food security, improve nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) and protect the environment have received increasing attention. However, the dominant agricultural paradigm still considers high yield and reducing environmental impacts to be in conflict with one another. Here we examine a Three-Step-Strategy of past 20 years to produce more with less in China, showing that tremendous progress has been made to reduce N fertilizer input without sacrificing crop yield. The first step is to use technology for in-season root-zone nutrient management to significantly increase NUE. The second is to use technology for integrated nutrient management to increase both yield and NUE by 15%–20%. The third step is to use technology for integrated soil-crop system management to increase yield and NUE by 30%–50% simultaneously. These advances can thus be considered an effective agricultural paradigm to ensure food security, while increasing NUE and improving environmental quality.