In many ways, the evolution of Chinese agriculture over the past 40 years is a remarkable success story. Spurred by investments in research and government subsidies for fertilizers and other farm technologies, China now feeds 22% of the world's population on just 9% of its total arable land.
But as a special collection of papers in the July-August issue of the Journal of Environmental Quality (JEQ) points out, these achievements have come at a cost. Massive losses of nutrients from croplands and manure from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) have polluted the country's streams, rivers, soil, and air. In pursuit of food security, 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.
"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 Fusuo Zhang of China Agricultural University, an author on several papers in the collection, "with some of the most serious pollution problems linked directly to injudicious use of nutrients for crop and animal production." And the trend is expected to continue given China's economic might and its booming population of 1.3 billion.
That's why we should all be paying attention as teams of Chinese and Western scientists now try to shift the country away from a single focus on food security to a triple emphasis on food security, efficient use of resources, and environmental protection, says University of Delaware soil scientist, Tom Sims.
"China is a major consumer of the world's nutrients, a significant consumer of global food resources, and its economy more or less is roaring," says Sims, who organized the JEQ special section from a series of keynote papers given at the fourth International Nutrient Management Symposium at University of Delaware in 2011. "So 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."
What the nation is specifically trying to do is enact comprehensive policies and programs for managing nutrients on agricultural lands—programs that are mostly lacking now. Driven by increased demand for meat and dairy products, for example, roughly 50% of all of China's cattle, and many of its poultry and pigs, are raised in CAFOs today compared with fewer than 5% before 1980. But with no concomitant growth in systems or strategies for handling manure, much of the waste winds up in waterways and landfills, or volatilizes to the atmosphere. And using manure for fertilizer isn't an economically viable option today, Sims says, since most Chinese CAFOs are disconnected geographically from croplands.
What's more, scientists who study this and other 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. "The agricultural advisory system is fragmented and evolving," he says. "There are many actors and barriers, but as yet no coherent management strategy or policy."
Of course, these problems are hardly unique to China. Many people in the United States are now trying to reconnect crop and livestock production systems, for example, instead of growing crops in monoculture and cattle in CAFOs. "I'd say we have had many of the same issues, we're just further along in dealing with them," Sims says. However, there is one critical difference between Chinese agriculture and farming in North America and Europe that makes solving these problems in China much trickier: the culture of the small-holder farmer.
Most farmers in China farm less than an acre with their families, Sims says, and many receive heavily subsidized nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer from the government, which they apply to crops by hand. "So educating hundreds of millions of people about how to properly use fertilizer—without an extension service—is one of the root issues," he says.
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."
Movement is occurring, though. While China's Ministry of Agriculture and the associated Bureau of Agriculture still have the greatest impacts on farmers through direct financial support, Zhang says, the influence of the 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.
"Effective agricultural policies that also address environmental problems are what's needed today," says Sims. "China is quite an economically free country now, so policies that affect the industries, encourage investment in new ideas, educate the farmers, provide a better advisory network, and address the disconnect between animal and crop production."
There's another reason he, Zhang, and their co-authors want others to know about China's experience, and that's to help inform decisions and policies 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.
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