Fusuo Zhang, Xinping Chen1 and Peter Vitousek
Nature – For the past two decades, commentators have hailed genetically modified (GM) crops as the magic bullet that will solve the world’s food crisis. Yet obtaining the drastically bigger yields needed to feed a growing and increasingly wealthy global population — without further depleting soils, destroying natural habitats and polluting air and water — will demand an all-embracing approach.
China is taking steps towards such a strategy, and so offers an extraordinary laboratory for the rest of the world. In 2003–11, the country increased its cereal production by about 32% (more than double the world average1), largely by improving the performance of its least-efficient farms. Yet in the next two decades, 30–50% more food will be needed to meet China’s projected demand2. The country has little spare land, and water shortages are reaching crisis levels in some areas. Added to this, excessive fertilizer use is a major contributor to air pollution3 — itself a leading risk factor in hundreds of thousands of premature deaths each year. The overuse of fertilizer is also causing numerous lakes, rivers and coastal regions to become clogged with algal blooms, especially in south China.