Ensuring China’s future food security will have enormous environmental impacts, both nationally and globally. A study by IIASA researchers and Chinese colleagues shows that carefully designed policies across the Chinese food system, including international trade, are crucial to ensure that future demand can be met without destroying the environment.
China is one of the most populous countries on the planet and providing its growing population with food without harming the environment is one of the biggest sustainability challenges it will face in the coming decades. While domestic production contributes substantially to the country’s food security, imports currently play an important role in meeting China’s food demand, especially in terms of growing demand for livestock products like meat and dairy products, which can have negative environmental impacts on China and the rest of the world.
The authors of the study which has just appeared in Sustainability of nature, addressed 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.
“Assessing the impacts of future food demand requires comprehensive analyzes of the agricultural sector, while monitoring global environmental impacts requires models representing trade with other regions individually. We focused on China in the global context, projecting the dynamic global future against other local models, ”says lead author of the study, Hao Zhao, who is jointly associated with the research group on the future of the biosphere integrated into the IIASA program on biodiversity and natural resources and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
According to the authors, Chinese food demand is expected to increase continuously, especially for livestock products and related fodder crops. In this regard, the expansion of rangelands, along with an associated increase in agricultural greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, will pose a significant challenge to sustainable national agricultural development.
The country’s growing dependence on agricultural imports also has implications for the global environment. The study found that by 2050, twice as much additional farmland will be “imported” into China as agricultural products from overseas, than what would be put into production at home. For some countries, around 30% on average of environmental challenges will relate to exports to China. For example, 48% of agricultural land and 33% of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture in New Zealand, 16% of nitrogen use in Canada, and 11% of state irrigation water United are expected to be exported to China by 2050..
The distribution of environmental impacts between China and the rest of the world would strongly depend on the development of trade openness. For example, in a globalized trade scenario developed in the study, more imports of dairy products from the EU and beef from the United States would result in lower GHG emissions compared to to a business as usual scenario. On the other hand, this scenario would also lead to an increase in beef imports from Latin American countries where the land footprint of the livestock industry is high.
The researchers conclude that to meet China’s food demand, the priority should be to sustainably supply more locally produced food, especially for livestock products. Ruminant productivity has considerable room for improvement. In addition, coupled animal and plant production systems would benefit both resource use and environmental sustainability through, among other things, reduced nitrogen inputs and fewer pollutants. The researchers say changing consumer preferences could help as well, although there are still many challenges in terms of raising awareness and government advocacy of these issues.
“China’s growing demand for agricultural products is one of the biggest challenges on the way to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, not only at the national level, but also among China’s trading partners. To reduce global impacts, policies favoring both sustainable consumption and production must be pursued in China and promoted globally, also through appropriate trade agreements, ”notes Petr Havlik, co-author and Head of the Research Group on the Future of the Integrated Biosphere at IIASA.
In a globalized world, international trade plays an important role in facilitating socio-environmental interactions between countries. The researchers hope their work could help promote global sustainability and thereby help relieve pressure on our fragile planet.
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Petr Havlík, China’s Future Food Demand and Its Implications for Trade and the Environment, Sustainability of nature (2021). DOI: 10.1038 / s41893-021-00784-6. www.nature.com/articles/s41893-021-00784-6
Provided by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis
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