China now feeds 22% of the world's population on just 9% of its total arable land, largely due to investments in research, technology and government assistance, says a new collection of papers published in the Journal of Environmental Quality. But those advancements come at an environmental cost, the papers note.
Nutrient loss has polluted China's water resources, and China has also dipped deeply into global resource supplies, using in recent years more synthetic nitrogen fertilizer than all of North America and Europe combined, the paper found.
"As the country has transitioned over the past four decades from an undeveloped nation into the world's second largest economy, very hefty tolls have been placed on China's natural resources and the environment," says China Agricultural University's Fusuo Zhang, an author on several papers in the collection.
He notes that some of the most serious pollution problems are linked directly to "injudicious use" of nutrients for crop and animal production.
Soil scientists like the University of Deleware's Tom Sims are taking note of the changes, calling for a triple emphasis on food security, efficient resource use and environmental protection.
"It's really important that China be successful in what it's trying to do not only to feed all those people, but also for the sake of the global economy they're part of and the global environment," Sims says.
But approaches in combatting the nutrient issues that China faces isn't easy. Some hurdles include a lack of teaching outlets and collaboration in research. Scientists who study nutrient management issues tend to work separately from one another, resulting in "too many conflicting messages," Zhang says, for policy makers, businesses, farmers, and the public about how to solve problems.