The Better Earth

China's future isn't just skyscrapers, but also soil.

Farmers make a Chinese national flag from chilli peppers and corn on Longquan mountain in Lishui in China's eastern Zhejiang province on September 26, 2018. - (-/AFP/Getty Images)
Farmers make a Chinese national flag from chilli peppers and corn on Longquan mountain in Lishui in China's eastern Zhejiang province on September 26, 2018. - (-/AFP/Getty Images)

Eight hundred million people have escaped poverty in China since Deng Xiaoping launched his gaige kaifang economic reforms in 1978. And while many might imagine the soaring cityscapes and bustling industrial centers to be the engines of this swift transformation, much of this success can actually be credited to the increases in agricultural productivity achieved by China’s farmers.

Chinese agriculture ably stepped up to the formidable task of feeding its growing population. Yet China’s major agricultural regions still have further potential to match the production levels of staple crops seen in the United States, Germany, and other major exporting countries, reaching optimum levels of more than 3.5 tons per acre for rice and wheat, and more than 6 tons per acre for maize, from current national averages  of 2-3 tons per acre. As the world struggles with the possible impacts of climate change, leveraging China’s agricultural potential will be critical to global food security in coming years.

China can both farm more efficiently and reduce the environmental impact of agriculture, with the government playing an active role in bringing together researchers, farmers, and agribusinesses.

This strategy has already worked. Take mineral fertilizers. During the 1990s and in the first decade of this century, farmers applied almost twice as much nitrogen fertilizer as crops actually needed, in order to replenish the soil and achieve higher yields more quickly. While well intentioned, this actually resulted in diminishing returns and contributed to added pressure on the environment.

But government interventions to reduce fertilizer subsidies, widespread training for farmers, and a more balanced approach toward mineral and organic products have helped farmers reach up to 97 percent of their attainable yield, where they had previously achieved less than 70 percent.

In less than two decades, from 2000 to 2017, the efficiency of nitrogen fertilizer use in China increased from 27 percent to 38 percent, meaning crops took in a greater proportion of the total amount applied.

Optimizing the use of nitrogen fertilizer has significant benefits for the environment. Coupled with best practices in nutrient management on farms, smart fertilizer use could reduce emissions by between 102 and 357 teragrams of CO2-equivalent—the equivalent of taking 43 million cars off the road for one year.

Building on this achievement, and eventually fulfilling China’s full agricultural potential, will first require continuous and extensive training for the country’s farmers, many of whom are aging and poorly educated. They need support to learn how to calculate the right amounts of organic and synthetic fertilizers and apply them at the right rate in the right time in the right space—a nutrient stewardship principle called the 4Rs that is being promoted and implemented throughout the world.

The Science and Technology Backyard initiative at China Agricultural University is actively undertaking this task by placing agricultural scientists in villages to live side by side with farmers for up to eight months of the year. Such grassroots support helps build the trust needed for farmers to follow and accept new methods.

Meanwhile, the government has launched training programs to support the next generation of farmers, who are typically better educated and more equipped to adopt advanced technologies.

China will also need ever more innovative products, such as slow-release and controlled-release fertilizers, which efficiently promote high agricultural yields. The fertilizer industry has already stepped up to the challenge of providing Chinese farmers with many “green” products, and improved inputs continue to be highly important, particularly as Chinese farmers typically farm on small plots of little more than an acre.

Finally, the government also plays an essential role in enabling farmers to move toward an optimized balance of fertilizers, encouraging them to use mineral products to boost key nutrients in the soil while applying manure or compost to enrich soil organically.

Restrictions on burning crop residues have already helped improve soil fertility by ensuring that organic nutrients return to the soil, which in turn improves the soil’s organic matter and contributes to reduced greenhouse gas emissions through carbon capture.

But the state is also the best vehicle for sharing information and connecting industry, research, and farmers. This will be important as the agricultural sector moves toward adopting new technologies, including improvements in seeds and greater mechanization.

China has already proved a successful agricultural producer and an even more successful agricultural reformer. The further “greening” of the sector, supported by best practices in nutrient management, has the potential to have as profound an impact on the country as the reforms of the past 40 years—alongside China’s leadership in other areas such as climate change.

With ever more sustainable practices, China can do even more with less—and soon.

Professor Zhang Weifang, based at China Agricultural University in Beijing, is one of China's leading fertilizer experts and winner of the International Fertilizer Association's 2018 Norman Borlaug award.

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