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How China’s population boom will impact the environment

Few places in the world showcase the overgrowth of the human population like China does. A new study published in Nature Sustainability looks at the environmental impact of the populous China’s increasing need for food

Study lead author Hao Zhao is associated with the Integrated Biosphere Futures Research Group in the IIASA Biodiversity and Natural Resources Program.

“Assessing the impacts of future food demand requires comprehensive analyses of the agricultural sector, while tracking global environmental impacts calls for models representing trade with other regions individually. We focused on China in the global context, projecting the dynamic global future compared with other local models,”

The research predicts that demand for food in China will continue to steadily increase, especially the demand for livestock and livestock feed. To meet this demand, more land will be used for grazing and greenhouse gas emissions will increase. This also means an increasing reliance on food imports. By 2050, the paper predicts, as much as twice the agricultural land abroad will be needed to feed the growing nation. 

By feeding China’s demand for food, the rest of the world will pay some of the environmental cost as well. On average, as much as 30 percent of a given country’s environmental challenges will be related to exports to China. In New Zealand for instance, 48 percent of agricultural land use and 33 percent of related greenhouse gases will be caused by China. 

Various trade possibilities and greenhouse gas emissions will influence the extent of the environmental impacts associated with China’s food production. How those impacts are distributed will also depend on trade routes. 

The researchers say that the focus should be on increasing the sustainability of agriculture at home in China. Livestock especially has a lot of room for improvement toward becoming truly sustainable. 

“China’s rising demand for agricultural products is one of the greatest challenges on the way to reaching the Sustainable Development Goals, not only domestically, but also in China’s trading partners,” said study co-author Peter Havlik.

“To reduce the global impacts, policies promoting both sustainable consumption and production need to be further pursued in China, and promoted globally, also through appropriate trade agreements.”

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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