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.”
Read more at: Phys.org