The cost of fight: How Chinese agriculture impacts world environment

Elena Vardanian
4 min read

China’s remarkable social and economic development over the past two decades led to a large increase in demand for food, especially for livestock products. Import of soybeans and meat is skyrocketing and with growing numbers our worries about sustainability of international trade are rising as well. For example, 43% of deforestation emissions due to soybean cultivation in Brazil is attributed to China’s soybean imports in 2017 (1).

As the agricultural sector is a key contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, air and water pollution and biodiversity loss, China’s growing food demand can be a challenge to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. 

Virtual nevertheless real

Is it possible to satisfy China's food demand with no harm to the environment? Probably not, since China’s agricultural production is now responsible for 13% of global GHG (1). The study published in October 2021 in Nature Sustainability has looked into this issue and provided a comprehensive forward-looking assessment of the environmental impacts of China’s growing food demand on the country itself and on its trading partners (1).

Hao Zhao and the team have found that the increasing food demand, especially for livestock products will require in the nearest future up to 12 Mha of additional pasture, followed by growth in GHG emissions and might become a challenge to sustainable domestic agricultural development.

The reliance on agricultural imports has implications for the global environment. According to a study, by 2050 twice as much additional agricultural land will be “imported” to China in the form of agricultural products from abroad, than what would be produced domestically (1).

Moreover, the study found that 48% of agricultural land and 33% of greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector in New Zealand, 16% of nitrogen use from Canada, and 11% of irrigation water from the United States will be attributed to products exported to China by 2050 (1).

Organic agriculture leadership

Agriculture is a key source of greenhouse gasses. Rice farming and the use of nitrogen fertilizers are the biggest sources of methane and nitrous oxide emissions respectively, accounting for 40% and 47% of China’s emissions of these gasses (5).

Today the use of nitrogen fertilizer in China accounts for 32% of global fertilizer use (1). The overapplication of synthetic fertilizer and pesticides resulted in soil contamination, algae blooms, and increased greenhouse gas emissions. These chemical residues in food and nitrogen infiltration into groundwater led to health problems of farmers and farm workers as well as Chinese customers (4).

The ecological consequences of rapid food demand force the food supply chain to shift away from chemical-intensive agriculture towards a more sustainable food system within China — and around the world. China’s policies promote sustainable practices such as using compost and animal manure instead of chemical fertilizer, cover crops, crop rotations and intercropping that yield the fruits. For example, the total area of certified organic agriculture cultivation increased more than five-fold between 2005 and 2018, to 3.1 million hectares (2).

However, switching to organic farming is no silver bullet, because organic farming comes with costs such as deforestation and destruction of the whole ecosystems that are turned into fields.

WeChat case

It is more important not to view China’s environmental record in a negative light since the national sustainable agriculture plan and policies are doing their best to curb agrochemical use and shed light on the prospects for sustainable agriculture in China. WeChat app for farmers is a good example of how an equivalent of Facebook can be a tool for improving agricultural practices and protecting the fertile black soil (3).

Norwegian scientists from NIBIO together with Chinese agricultural scientists have developed a site-specific fertilization system with a traditional more detailed web version for Agtech and a WeChat version for farmersю App was initially developed for the agriculture region in Heilongjiang province (Northeast China) and farmers already can try it on their crop fields.

In a nutshell, this system helps farmers to use fertilizer selectively, avoiding over-fertilisation and soil degradation. Remote sensing technology is the core of precision N management. The satellite image is used as the base map, and a farmers’ information together with soil, weather and remote sensing data helps to receive timely information on growth status of their crops (3).

The bottom line

China’s rising demand for agricultural products is one of the greatest challenges on the way to reaching the Sustainable Development Goals, both domestically and in China’s trading partners. To reduce the global impacts, policies in China have to keep promoting sustainable consumption, reduce over-fertilization and highlight the benefits of sustainable agriculture.