Exploring the environmental impact of crop production in China using a comprehensive footprint approach

Yunpeng Li, Wenao Wu, Jiaxin Yang, Kun Cheng*, Pete Smith, Jianfei Sun, Xiangrui Xu, Qian Yue, Genxing Pan

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Citations (Scopus)


The carbon-nutrient-water cycles of farmland ecosystem not only provides support for crop production, but also has an impact on the environment. Comprehensively quantifying the impact of crop production on the environment can provide a basis for crop sustainable production. A series of environmental footprint approaches, including carbon footprint (CF), nitrogen footprint (NF) and water footprint (WF), were optimized to evaluate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, reactive nitrogen (Nr) loss and water resource consumption in crop production, and a comprehensive footprint method based on Endpoint modeling was proposed to evaluate the overall environmental impact of crop production in China. The CF, NF and WF of 28 forms of crop production varied from 1206.29 kg CO2 equivalent (CO2-eq) ha(-1) of oil crops to 7326.37 kg CO2-eq ha(-1) of fiber crops, 16.07 kg Nr-eq ha(-1) of oil crops to 60.70 kg Nr-eq ha(-1) of sugar crops, and 4032.04 m(3) ha(-1) oil crops to 12,476.28 m(3) ha(-1) of sugar crops, respectively. The contribution of each component to footprints varied greatly among different crops, and fertilizer manufacture, NH3 volatilization and green WF were generally the main contributors of CF, NF and WF, respectively. The total GHG emissions, Nr loss and water consumption were estimated to be 670.11 Tg CO2-eq, 5.50 Tg Nr-eq and 837.06 G m(3) for all crop production of China. The greenhouse vegetable with the highest area-scaled comprehensive footprint was 4.5 times that of the oil crops which had the lowest one. The contribution of crop production to the corresponding environmental impact in China was as low as 3.7%, of which NH3 volatilization contributed 48% and grain production contributed 72%. Mineral N fertilization was the main driver of the variation of comprehensive footprint between provinces, with reduction of N fertilizer application as an important way to reduce the environmental impact of crop production.

Original languageEnglish
Article number153898
Number of pages12
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Early online date22 Feb 2022
Publication statusPublished - 10 Jun 2022

Bibliographical note

This work was financially supported by Natural Science Foundation of China under a grant no. 41877546 and 41907073, and a BBSRC–Newton Fund project N-Circle (BB/N013484/1).


  • Greenhouse gas
  • Reactive nitrogen
  • Evapotranspiration
  • Crop production
  • Nitrogen fertilizer
  • Climate change


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