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Exploring Sustainable Pathways by Balancing Food Security, Trade, and Environmental Impacts in China


Providing sufficient food without harming the environment is the long-term goal for the Chinese government. It is also a challenge for agricultural green development and achieving the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). With socioeconomic development and continued globalization, China’s food demand is projected to keep increasing. China will also experience a further increase in its reliance on food and feed imports. Until now, an integrated assessment simultaneously analyzing global agricultural markets and China’s bilateral trade, land-use competition and associated environmental impacts has not been conducted.

In a recent study published in Nature Sustainability, however, Prof. MA Lin from the Center for Agricultural Resources Research of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), together with his collaborators, has attempted to answer explore this problem using a partial-equilibrium agricultural economic model and food–land–water–nutrients–greenhouse gases (GHGs) nexus method.

The researchers improved the Global Biosphere Management Model to enhance representation of China and validation of local parameters. In addition, a comprehensive assessment of the global environmental impacts of China’s future food demand was conducted.

“China’s food demand, including food, feed, biofuel and other uses is projected to increase continuously until the middle of this century,” said Prof. MA Lin, corresponding author of the study.

Results show that domestic production makes a substantial contribution to China’s food security. The distribution of environmental impacts between China and the rest of the world will largely depend on the development of trade openness.

According to the sensitivity analysis of the study, the researchers found that, compared with the business-as-usual projections, two alternative socioeconomic scenarios, Restricted Development and High Development, represent the overall global environmental impacts. The trade liberalization assumption would lead to a decrease in GHGs mainly because of increasing imports from regions with low GHG intensity compared to China (e.g., EU and USA).

From a protein perspective, global trade in agricultural products increase global land use efficiency and nutrient use efficiency. However, there is still potential for improving the function and optimization of global trade. “Therefore, future agricultural trade policies should integrate global optimization towards SDGs,” said Prof. BAI Zhaohai, co-author of the study.

This study sets forth the challenges facing China and the whole world related to food security, water shortage, greenhouse gas emissions, and sustainable land use, etc.

The researchers have been working on sustainable solutions, spatial planning and potential techniques for quantifying the trade-offs between multiple sustainable development goals and indicators for global food systems. They hope their work will help promote a successful Chinese solution for sustainable food systems, which can contribute to global sustainability.

This study was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the Youth Innovation Promotion Association of CAS, and the Key Laboratory of Agricultural Water Resources of CAS, among others.