Environmental sustainability challenges of the China's future food demand

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It is often said that China feeds 22% of the world’s population with 7% of the world’s arable land. How about the ignored contribution of land related to China’s imported products?

There is no doubt that much more diverse food consumption is accompanying China’s successful socio-economic transformation. Trade as a supplement of domestic production is key for supplying sufficient food in China. However, the reliance on imports may pose environmental challenges to exporting regions. To investigate the impact of China’s future food demand, we used an enhanced global agricultural economic model to project China’s agricultural sector and environmental dynamics. We found that following the current development trajectory, meeting China’s growing food demand, especially for livestock products, will have large environmental impacts domestically and globally. What was shown in the beginning may be appropriate in the 00s’, but in the future, the virtually imported agricultural land will account for more than a quarter of China’s overall agricultural land use demand.

Surprisingly, trade expansion causes more additional agricultural land to be virtually imported to China than brought into production within China. More interestingly, our sensitivity analysis for high openness of trade results in less environmental impacts in terms of GHG emissions and nitrogen use. Because more ruminant products are projected to be imported from high-efficiency regions, e.g., EU and US. So, the expectation that importing more food leads to more environmental consequences is not tenable. It is not the quantity of imported food that matters, but the source of importing. This finding highlights the urgent need to integrate environmental considerations when designing trade policies, and countries with high productivity and efficiency should take more responsibility for reaching global environmental sustainability.

In 2019, we got the chance to communicate with researchers from countries that have a close economic partnership with China, such as Brazil, the US, and Australia in the context of FABLE. Originally, the goal is to develop pathways towards import demands that are consistent with sustainable development objectives. But the sustainable scenario did not make the final cut, because we were rather interested in assessing the self-sufficient potential of China's food supply in the region-specific context rather than analyzing the benefits of productivity increase or diet shift in a general way.

Given the large heterogeneity inside China, solutions should go detailed at the regional level considering limited natural resources and fragile ecology conditions. China recently launched a set of policies aiming to increase crop and livestock production sustainably, such as Grass-based husbandry, Cultivated Land Quality Protection and Promotion program, Improvement of Low-medium yield fields, etc. Following these guidelines, we can conclude the direction of sustainable solutions: On the supply side, besides the improvement of productivity and efficiency, re-allocating crop and livestock production under resources and environment constraints is also urgent. On the demand side, consume alternative protein (aquatic products, artificial meat, insects, etc.) to reduce the demand for livestock products, and develop novel technologies (micro protein, circular feeds) to reduce demand for livestock feed. These measures are particularly benefiting environmental sustainability in China as livestock products drive food demand increase.

The findings from this study have far-reaching implications for systematically designing the food system in China related to food demand, production systems, and environmental and resources management. We can not wait to see the sustainable food supply chains both in China and worldwide.

Hao Zhao

PhD, Center for Agricultural Resources Research, CAS