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Promoting potato as staple food can reduce the carbon–land–water impacts of crops in China


China has recently implemented a policy to promote potato as a national staple food and to close its large yield gaps with other countries. The carbon–land–water implications of this policy are examined here by compiling and analysing detailed city-level life-cycle inventories of China’s staple crops. We find that in general potato, despite relatively low yields, has lower greenhouse gas emissions and water demand than other staple crops (maize, wheat and rice) on a per-calorie basis, but substantial regional variation exists for each crop. Integrating potato as a staple in China to meet increases in food demand and close the yield gap has the potential to reduce the total carbon–land–water impacts of staple crops by 17–25% by 2030. However, an unsuccessful integration runs the risk of global burden-shifting if the policy, for example, reduced domestic rice production and led to increased rice imports. Potential synergies between food security and environmental sustainability in China can be created by the potato policy, but greater efforts are needed to promote potato across the entire food supply chain from production to consumption.

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Fig. 1: Regional variation in cropland use, GHG emissions and water use at the prefecture–city level in 2015.
Fig. 2: Distribution of the intensity of land use, GHG emissions and water use at the prefecture–city level in 2015.
Fig. 3: Cropland use, GHG emissions and water use under various scenarios.
Fig. 4: Potential global carbon leakage.

Data availability

All the data that support the life-cycle inventory and scenario analyses of this study are from public sources clearly referenced in the manuscript and most of the data are provided in the Supplementary Information. Source data are provided with this paper.

Code availability

The codes used for data processing, analysis and visualization during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.


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The research was funded in part by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (71874078, B. Liu and 71921003, J.B.). We thank Dongyue Zhao for her effort into the early development of this study.

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Authors and Affiliations



B. Liu, W.G. and Y.Y. designed the research study. B. Liu, W.G. and F.W. developed early drafts. Y.Y., B. Liu and W.G. revised the paper. W.G. and B. Lu collected and analysed the data. B. Lu and W.G. produced the figures. B.Z. and J.B. contributed discussion points and reviewed the paper. All authors critically reviewed and approved the final manuscript and are accountable for all aspects of the work.

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Correspondence to Yi Yang, Bing Zhang or Jun Bi.

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Peer review information Nature Food thanks Zhenling Cui and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Liu, B., Gu, W., Yang, Y. et al. Promoting potato as staple food can reduce the carbon–land–water impacts of crops in China. Nat Food 2, 570–577 (2021).

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