Agriculture has been the foundation of China’s economy for centuries and remains vital for world sustainability. There have always been “great debates” regarding China’s agriculture development. The most fundamental one is whether and how China can feed her large population. China has been struggling with this challenge throughout her long history and will continue to face it as the population grows and the country becomes increasingly affluent. Furthermore, the ongoing processes of rapid economic growth and urbanization not only bring great opportunities but also new challenges to agriculture and rural society. There have been new concerns in various areas, such as food safety, agricultural non-point source pollution, etc.
China has done remarkable work in feeding 22% of the world’s population with 9% of the planet’s arable land, despite the biophysical and environmental limits, such as the highly uneven distribution of water resources [1
]. At the same time, this has come with a price. Like the agricultural sectors in other countries, China’s farms rely heavily on the ecological services of local ecosystems, including soil fertility, water resources, pollination, etc. The increasingly intensive agricultural activities lead to serious environmental pollution and over-exploitation of resources spawning serious ecological problems, such as soil and water pollution from excessive utilization of agrochemicals, soil erosion from land conversion, deforestation, etc. [2
In this paper, we discuss the nexus between agricultural production and the environment from two perspectives: food security and sustainability. The paper mainly focuses on two questions:
What is the trend of China’s agricultural production and what are the driving forces that contribute to meeting food demand for 22% of the world’s population?
On one hand, what are the environmental impacts incurred by the expansion and intensification of agricultural production? And on the other hand, how do these impacts influence the sustainability of the country’s agricultural sector?
China’s agricultural sector has gone through tremendous changes, including institutional transformations, structural adjustment of policies, technology advancement, etc. [5
] Evidence show that from 1979 to 1984, institutional changes (de-collectivization, allocating land equally to all households in rural villages) were major sources of growth in the agricultural sector [6
], Huang and Rozelle [8
] identify technology adoption to be the major driver for production growth between 1978–1984, greater than institutional reform, and between 1985 to 1990, technology accounted for all growth after the benefit of de-collectivization was exhausted. Liu, Zhang and Herbert [1
] document that by 2010, China could already grow more than 95% of its own grain, providing food security to 22% of the world’s population. This achievement is notable because the country has only 9% of the world’s cultivated farmland. It is estimated that a total of almost 100 billion kilograms more grain will be needed by 2030, which calls for an additional 1% annual increase in current production.
Globally, increasing demand for agricultural products often contradicts the goal of environmental protection [9
]. This is particularly true for the agricultural sector in China. The successful achievement of food security has resulted in severe damages to the environment, affecting the landscape, water, nutrients, biodiversity, etc. [4
]. The agro-related pollution sources include misuse or overuse of agrochemicals, poorly managed waste water from livestock production, contamination due to wastewater irrigation etc. Norse and Ju [4
] estimate that the economic loss due to environmental damage, such as negative impacts on the sustainability of food production and human health ranges from 7% to 10% of China’s agricultural gross domestic product, for example, the researchers identify the overuse of nitrogenous fertilizer as a major cause of economic loss.
In the past, an unofficial ideology of “pollute first, and then clean up” was the root of the Chinese agricultural sector’s poor environmental performance [3
]; however, balancing the agriculture–environment nexus is among China’s current greatest challenges. Efficient and ecosystem-friendly cropping systems are increasingly studied with the goal of improving water-use efficiency and nutrient management [10
]. Yet greater efforts are required to advance the sustainability of agricultural production, including technology advancement, such as genetically modified crops, institutional innovations regarding land tenure, and policy adjustments to encourage adoption of conservational practices. Bromley [12
] emphasizes the roles of technology and rationalizing institutional and organization irregularities in order to solve the issues of increasing demand. Liu, Zhang and Herbert [1
] also point out the importance of complimentary policies for land management, urbanization processes and subsidy support.
Looking toward the future, a key debate for future development of the agricultural sector is whether farming should be labor-intensive, involving small farms seeking high-value agricultural production, or capital-intensive large farms, such as those operating in the U.S. In 2013, China’s central government began to encourage land transfers and the formation of large farms in order to improve efficiency. However, there are other voices about this issue, arguing that resources (such as labor and land) are fundamentally different in the two countries. One farming system, therefore, might not suit both cases. For instance, a core objective in the U.S. farming system is to save labor. Yet labor is relatively abundant in China while land is relatively scarce. Therefore, the labor-intensive small farms, conducting high-quality agriculture production, may suit China better [13
]. At the same time, traditional farming systems may hold the key to food security and agro-biodiversity conservation.
Before going into the detailed discussion, we first explain the scope of the agriculture–environment nexus and the discussion around it in this article. Figure 1
is the framework of this article, in which we outline the logics of our discussion and linkages among different components. In later discussion, we present evidence from the literature to support the framework. In this article, we analyze the two key questions raised earlier in the framework of the agriculture–environment nexus, in which we start from the driving forces that influence the historical trends of agricultural production in China (the left). We then focus on how agriculture affects the environment through landscape, water, soil, etc., while on the other hand, how the environment has feedback effects on agriculture (the center). Then, relationships between policies for the agriculture and the environment (the right) are discussed: how the policy system affects the agriculture–environment nexus, and what is the future picture for sustainability and food security in China.
The remainder of this article follows the framework in Figure 1
. Section 2
discusses historical trends of agricultural production in China, and the major driving forces behind recent changes. Then in Section 3
, we focus on the environmental impacts/consequences of accelerated agricultural production, on water, soil, air and other media. Section 4
concentrates on public policy: what roles do agricultural and environmental policies play in the system? Section 5
looks into the future: how present and future driving forces may affect ongoing changes in China’s agriculture sector that can lead to more sustainable development.
5. Towards the Future: Food Security and Sustainability
Looking towards the future, food security and sustainability will continue to be two primary goals of the agricultural sector in China. How China’s agriculture could meet the country’s food demand with higher quality and more varieties in a sustainable approach is a central challenge faced by the country.
In the past, food security meant simply that the agricultural sector could provide enough food for the country. It has been proven that with the right technology and institutional innovations, China can achieve this—and indeed, the agricultural sector has done remarkable work to achieve this goal. In the future, innovations will continue to be a key driver for the growth of agriculture, including expanded utilization of GM crops, machinery uses, and land/institutional reforms. For instance, as many of the most efficient farm equipment is better suited for large farms, the continued land reform, Separation of Three Rights relating to Agricultural Land (San-quan-fen-zhi
, in Chinese pinyin) encouraging land transfers can facilitate a transition to larger farms and more efficient farming practices. Another institutional innovation, Major Function Oriented Zoning (MFOZ) is potentially helpful to resolve the competing land uses between agricultural policies and conservation policies. It delineates land into four types of zones by functions: development-optimized zones and development-prioritized zones for massive urbanization and industrialization; development-restricted zones for ecological safety and food production; development-prohibited zones for protection of natural and cultural heritage [75
]. As part of a clear and well considered zoning process, policy priorities are set for each zone. This can potentially reduce policy conflicts and guarantee food production while protecting the environmentally vulnerable regions at the same time.
As China’s socio-economic conditions change, the concept of food security has come to have several meanings, not only referring to the quantity of food but also quality issues. For instance, food safety is a great challenge now and will continue to be so in the future, especially given the current degraded status of much of the country’s soil and water resources. Pernicious substances could potentially be found in the food supply which might be originally from water and soil, exposing consumers to a range of health risks. Since the National Survey of Soil Pollution was released in 2014, the central government of China has started to put intensive efforts to restore China’s contaminated soil and water, by establishing a special fiscal fund in 2015 and issuing management rules in 2017. But this will be a long process, and public participation and social supervision need to play key roles in preventing contaminants entering the food chain.
Furthermore, as income increases, higher food quality and more diversified dietary expectations will place greater pressures and requirements on the country’s agricultural sector. Agricultural species and genetics conservation, and more eco-friendly cropping systems, such as an integrated rice–fishery system, should be encouraged. These not only can provide high-quality food on the table, but are also beneficial to the environment and agro-biodiversity. Improved technology, such as cost-effective bio-energy generation, may help recycle residuals to solve the air and water pollution problem caused by crop straw or livestock manure, and will also provide new opportunities for the utilization of sustainable energies in rural area.
Given the relatively recent history of famine, food shortages and starvation, China has done an exceptional job in meeting the food demands of the country. However, progress has come at a price. Keeping the agriculture–environment nexus on a more sustainable track constitutes great challenges today and in the future. Looking towards this future, both challenges and opportunities exist. Technological innovation still remains the primary driver of agriculture growth. In March 2018, China also undertook substantial institutional reform on the structure of central government, by establishing the new Ministry of Natural Resources to end the bureaucratic fragmentation of land planning, and integrating regulatory responsibilities of pollution control (including agricultural pollution) into the new Ministry of Ecological Environment, which is expected to facilitate establishing a coherent policy system that attains agricultural–environmental objectives.