China's Ag Boom Creates Tension Between Food Security, Environment

Journal of Environmental Quality looks at relationship between China's growing demand for food and environmental quality

Published on: Jul 5, 2013

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.

Field workers in Guilin. (Photo by Mike Wilson, Farm Futures)
Field workers in Guilin. (Photo by Mike Wilson, Farm Futures)

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.

~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~

Most farmers in China farm less than an acre with their families, Sims says, and many receive subsidized nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer from the government, which they apply to crops by hand.

Sims says this smallholder organization makes educating hundreds of millions of people about how to properly use fertilizer—without an extension service—one of the root issues.

Zhang agrees, adding that better technology and knowledge transfer from research to practice is one of the key answers to China's challenges.

"Various nutrient management concepts and technologies have been developed and tested to some extent, especially in crop production," he says. "However, adoption of these concepts and technologies is still negligible because of social and cultural barriers."

Zhang says there is a bit of movement, however, because the influence of feed and fertilizer industries, universities, and research institutes has been growing since the economic reforms of the 1980s.

He and Sims now hope that as word spreads through conferences and research publications about the issues China faces in animal, crop, and vegetable production that change can begin happening more quickly, especially in the policy arena. China's experience may also spur policy discussions elsewhere.

"The food production and environmental lessons learned in China during this 40-year transition period we believe have value to other nations with emerging economies that are struggling to balance food security and environmental quality," Zhang says.

Access the abstracts of the special collection papers below.
An Analysis of Developments and Challenges in Nutrient Management in China
The Driving Forces for Nitrogen and Phosphorus Flows in the Food Chain of China, 1980 to 2010
Nitrogen and Phosphorus Use Efficiencies in Dairy Production in China
An Analysis of China's Fertilizer Policies: Impacts on the Industry, Food Security, and the Environment
Phosphorus in China's Intensive Vegetable Production Systems: Overfertilization, Soil Enrichment, and Environmental Implications

News source: American Society of Agronomy