Improving China’s food and environmental security with conservation agriculture†
China has achieved impressive increases in agricultural output in recent decades. Yet, past approaches centred on a growing use of fertilizers, pesticides, fuel and water are not likely to achieve the required 30–50% additional increases in food production by mid-century. We show that efficiencies of production are falling and the costs of environmental harm are increasing. Agricultural innovations that improve natural capital are urgently needed. Conservation agriculture (CA) is now practised on >8 Mha in China and is offering promising prospects of both enhanced yields and environmental services. Our meta-analysis of 60 papers with 395 observations in China shows notable benefits from CA. Mean yield increase was 4.5% or 263 kg ha−1 for wheat, 8.3% or 424 kg ha−1 for maize, and 1.65% or 250 kg ha−1 for rice. In 34 datasets from 22 published papers (experimental duration: 2–17 years), 26 datasets (76.5%) show that CA increased yield and soil organic carbon (mean SOC increase of >3 g.kg−1 in 0–10 cm soil depth) when compared with traditional tillage. Key priorities for the spread of more sustainable forms of agriculture in China are national policy and financial support, better coordination across agencies, and better extension for farmers.