Achieving food-system sustainability is a complex challenge that requires a multidimensional approach. In China, the rapid increase in crop production since 1990 has come at a cost to other dimensions of sustainability. Despite the government’s efforts to enhance production efficiency and reduce environmental impacts, there is little understanding of whether crop switching can help achieve more sustainable cropping systems and whether coordinated action is needed to avoid tradeoffs. This study by Xie et al., 2023 combines high-resolution data on crop-specific yields, environmental footprints, and farmer incomes to assess crop-production sustainability and identify potential solutions.
The study found that a siloed approach, in which each government ministry seeks to improve a single sustainability outcome in isolation, could lead to tradeoffs between different dimensions of sustainability and between regions. However, when there is central coordination, crop switching can lead to marked co-benefits for environmental-impact reductions and increased farmer incomes. Specifically, the study found that coordinated crop switching could reduce blue water, green water, greenhouse gases, fertilizers, and pesticides by up to 18.5%, 9.5%, 7.7%, 10.9%, and 10.8%, respectively, while increasing farmer incomes by up to 7.5%. These outcomes can contribute substantially towards China’s 2030 agricultural sustainable development targets and potentially produce global resource savings.
This study’s integrated approach highlights the importance of considering multiple dimensions of sustainability and the potential for coordinated action to achieve co-benefits across these dimensions. Using high-resolution data and spatial optimizations, the study provides valuable insights into the feasibility of targeted agricultural interventions that can help achieve sustainability goals while promoting economic growth. However, achieving food-system sustainability remains a complex challenge that requires continued efforts from governments, farmers, and other stakeholders to address the tradeoffs and uncertainties inherent in the food system.
Read more on the study by Xie et al., 2023 here.