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Food production in China requires intensified measures to be consistent with national and provincial environmental boundaries


Meeting increasing food demands in an environmentally sustainable manner is a worldwide challenge. Applying life cycle analysis to different scenarios, we show that a 47–99% reduction in phosphorus emissions, nitrogen emissions, greenhouse gas emissions, bluewater consumption and cropland use is needed for China’s food production in 2030 to be within national and provincial environmental boundaries. Basic strategies like improving food production efficiency, optimizing fertilizer application, reducing food loss and waste and shifting diets are currently insufficient to keep environmental impacts within national boundaries—particularly those concerning nitrogen. However, intensifying these strategies and reallocating food production from the northern to the southern provinces could keep environmental impacts within both national and provincial boundaries. We conclude that the environmental sustainability of China’s food production requires radical and coordinated action by diverse stakeholders.

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Fig. 1: Required environmental mitigation rates at national and provincial scales.
Fig. 2: Accumulated national environmental mitigation effects in 2030.
Fig. 3: Total mitigation effects of basic and augmented strategies for five environmental impacts.
Fig. 4: Redistribution of environmental impacts and food production for safeguarding provincial environmental boundaries.

Data availability

All the source data used in this study are publicly available and open access. Processed data that support the findings of this study are listed in the Supplementary Information and are also available from the corresponding authors upon reasonable request. Source data are provided with this paper.

Code availability

The codes for data processing and illustration are respectively generated in Matlab 2018a and R 3.6 and are available from the corresponding authors upon reasonable request.


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This research was supported by the National Science Foundation for Innovative Research Group (no. 51721093), the Chinese Postdoctoral Science Foundation (2019M663739), the Natural Science Foundation for Distinguished Young Scholars of Guangdong Province (no. 2017A030306032), GDUPS (2017), the Major Program of National Philosophy and Social Science Foundation of China (no. 16ZDA051) and National Natural Science Foundation of China (no. 71874014). We thank Y. Zhou of Guangdong University of Technology and S. Liang of Beijing Normal University for their valuable comments.

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Authors and Affiliations



Y.H., M.S., Z.Y. and F.M. designed this study. Y.H., S.C. and Y.L. developed the dataset for environmental impacts and food system scenarios. Y.W. compiled the disaggregated multiregional input–output table for China. W.Y. set the 2030 baseline for food demand and production in China. Y.H. and C.X. compiled the figures. Y.H., M.S. and C.X. analysed the results. All the authors contributed to the writing.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Meirong Su or Zhifeng Yang.

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Supplementary Figures 1–2 and Tables 1–29.

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Source Data Fig. 1

Source data from the model results to generate the bar chart and map in Fig. 1.

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Source data from the model results to generate the bar charts in Fig. 2.

Source Data Fig. 3

Source data from the model results to generate Fig. 3.

Source Data Fig. 4

Source data from the model results to generate the bar charts and map in Fig. 4.

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Hu, Y., Su, M., Wang, Y. et al. Food production in China requires intensified measures to be consistent with national and provincial environmental boundaries. Nat Food 1, 572–582 (2020).

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