Progress towards sustainable intensification in China challenged by land-use change

Lijun Zuo, Zengxiang Zhang, Kimberly M Carlson, Graham K MacDonald, Kate A Brauman, Yingchun Liu, Wen Zhang, Huayong Zhang, Wenbin Wu, Xiaoli Zhao, Xiao Wang, Bin Liu, Ling Yi, Qingke Wen, Fang Liu, Jinyong Xu, Shunguang Hu, Feifei Sun, James S Gerber, Paul C. West

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

160 Scopus citations


China is experiencing rapid land-use change and shifts in farm management. However, the interactive effects of these drivers on cropping system sustainability are unclear. Here, we evaluate spatio-temporal trade-offs among crop production and five key environmental indicators, including land use, water consumption, excess nitrogen and phosphorous use, and greenhouse gas emissions in China. From 1987 to 2010, as crop kilocalorie production increased (+66%), so did the total environmental impact of all indicators (+1.3-161%) except greenhouse gas emissions (-18%). Concurrently, environmental intensity - impact per kilocalorie produced - decreased for all indicators (-51 - 13%) except excess phosphorus (+57%). Despite substantial loss and displacement of cropland to urban expansion, counterfactual scenario analysis indicates that farm management explained >90% of changes in crop production and environmental impact. However, cropland is expanding in regions of relatively high land and irrigation intensity. Although efficiency gains partly compensated for increased environmental pressures, continued geographic shifts in cropland could challenge progress towards agricultural sustainability in China.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)304-313
Number of pages10
JournalNature Sustainability
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 1 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank N.D. Mueller from University of California-Irvine for help in developing crop-specific fertilizer application rate dataset. This work benefited from the comments of H. Tian from Auburn University and J. Hellmann from University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Funding was provided by National Key Research and Development Program of China (No. 2017YFE0104600), National Major Science and Technology Program for Water Pollution Control and Treatment (No. 2017ZX07101001), the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the Belmont Forum/FACCE-JPI funded DEVIL project (NE/M021327/1). K.M.C. was supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture Hatch project HAW01136-H managed by the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resource. G.K.M. was supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 The Author(s).


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