China is experiencing rapid land-use change and shifts in farm management. However, the interactive effects of these drivers on cropping system sustainability are unclear. Here, we evaluate spatio-temporal trade-offs among crop production and five key environmental indicators, including land use, water consumption, excess nitrogen and phosphorous use, and greenhouse gas emissions in China. From 1987 to 2010, as crop kilocalorie production increased (+66%), so did the total environmental impact of all indicators (+1.3–161%) except greenhouse gas emissions (−18%). Concurrently, environmental intensity—impact per kilocalorie produced—decreased for all indicators (−51–−13%) except excess phosphorus (+57%). Despite substantial loss and displacement of cropland to urban expansion, counterfactual scenario analysis indicates that farm management explained >90% of changes in crop production and environmental impact. However, cropland is expanding in regions of relatively high land and irrigation intensity. Although efficiency gains partly compensated for increased environmental pressures, continued geographic shifts in cropland could challenge progress towards agricultural sustainability in China.

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We thank N.D. Mueller from University of California-Irvine for help in developing crop-specific fertilizer application rate dataset. This work benefited from the comments of H. Tian from Auburn University and J. Hellmann from University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Funding was provided by National Key Research and Development Program of China (No. 2017YFE0104600), National Major Science and Technology Program for Water Pollution Control and Treatment (No. 2017ZX07101001), the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the Belmont Forum/FACCE-JPI funded DEVIL project (NE/M021327/1). K.M.C. was supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture Hatch project HAW01136-H managed by the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resource. G.K.M. was supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

Author information

Author notes

  1. These authors contributed equally to this work: James S. Gerber, Paul C. West.


  1. Institute of Remote Sensing and Digital Earth, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China

    • Lijun Zuo
    • , Zengxiang Zhang
    • , Xiaoli Zhao
    • , Xiao Wang
    • , Bin Liu
    • , Ling Yi
    • , Qingke Wen
    • , Fang Liu
    • , Jinyong Xu
    • , Shunguang Hu
    •  & Feifei Sun
  2. Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Management, University of Hawai’i, Honolulu, HI, USA

    • Kimberly M. Carlson
  3. Department of Geography, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

    • Graham K. MacDonald
  4. Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota, St Paul, MN, USA

    • Kate A. Brauman
    • , James S. Gerber
    •  & Paul C. West
  5. Academy of Forest Inventory and Planning, State Forestry Administration, Beijing, China

    • Yingchun Liu
  6. LAPC, Institute of Atmospheric Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China

    • Wen Zhang
  7. Research Center for Engineering Ecology and Nonlinear Science, North China Electric Power University, Beijing, China

    • Huayong Zhang
  8. Key Laboratory of Agri-informatics, Ministry of Agriculture/Institute of Agricultural Resources and Regional Planning, Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Beijing, China

    • Wenbin Wu


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L.Z., Z.Z., P.C.W. and J.S.G. designed the study. L.Z., Z.Z., Y.L., W.Z., W.W., X.Z., X.W., B.L., L.Y., Q.W., F.L., J.X., S.H., F.S., K.M.C. and K.A.B. prepared the data and/or carried out modelling. L.Z., Z.Z., K.M.C., G.K.M., K.A.B. and H.Z. analysed the data. L.Z., K.M.C., G.K.M., K.A.B., P.C.W. and J.S.G. wrote the paper.

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Lijun Zuo.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Figures 1-10, Supplementary Tables 1-13, Supplementary Methods, Supplementary References 1-35

  2. Supplementary Dataset 1

    Crop-specific production and environmental impacts for each indicator and each year

  3. Supplementary Dataset 2

    Ratio of crops planted in main season in each province for each period

  4. Supplementary Dataset 3

    Crop-specific nutrient application rates

  5. Supplementary Dataset 4

    Irrigation rate for each crop in each province

  6. Supplementary Dataset 5

    Ratio of irrigated crops planted in main season in each province for each period

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