Ensuring a constant level of grain production in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) while maintaining the country’s gains in eliminating poverty are twin policy priorities in the State Council Decree for Comprehensive Promotion of Rural Vitalization, the country’s most prominent policy statement for 2022. These priorities are consistent with various other government visions for the coming years, including the 14th Five-Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development, and would also contribute significantly to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

However, reaching these targets in a way that benefits farmers, agriculture, and rural development (FAR), or san nong in Chinese, is far from straightforward, due to challenges such as yield reductions, pollution, climate change impacts, and urban–rural income gaps. Addressing these challenges will make a far-reaching contribution to the country’s development agenda, in particular those associated with FAR.

The first challenge is achieving the balance between the quality and quantity of food supply. The demand for more nutritious and healthy foods is increasing. For example, production of meats is anticipated to increase by 15% during 2021–2025. An additional 30 million hectares (ha) of land is needed to grow the vegetables and fruits required to improve people’s diets. The government must pursue conservation agriculture by using fewer chemicals in farming to avoid yield reductions in cultivated lands.

Soil quality is another major challenge as a result of land degradation, chemical pollution, and plastic residues. Although programs to combat soil pollution have had some success since 2016, there must be methodical efforts to remove existing pollutants from soils completely while preventing additional pollution from occurring. Also, resources like water and fertilizers should be improved further to boost efficiency. The PRC’s overall water use efficiency is at a relatively low level and needs to be improved significantly to be compatible with the country’s sustainable development.

Extreme weather like floods and drought caused by climate change poses growing risks to cropping systems. For example, flooding in the summer of 2021 harmed about 6% and 10% of cultivated lands in Shanxi and Henan provinces, respectively. Agriculture contributes considerable greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, accounting in the PRC for more than 10% of the country’s total GHG emissions. During the 14th Five-Year Plan period (2021-2025), stepped up production of meat, milk, and eggs may add emissions of about 330 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. Increasing use of machinery in farming (from the current 70% to 75% by 2025) would also emit more GHGs into the atmosphere. Emissions on this scale may also present an obstacle to the PRC’s pledge to peak its carbon emissions by 2030.

Although farmers’ income has grown steadily in past decades, a further challenge is the still significant income gap between urban and rural residents. Incomes from crops are relatively low due to low grain prices and limited scale farming. Agriculture value chains need to be strengthened further to distribute more earnings to farmers.

Addressing these challenges can further the country’s development agenda and showcase promising approaches to balancing sustained agriculture production with ensuring prosperous rural development. Here are four ways to help achieve this.

First, agricultural facilities and infrastructure will need to be strengthened further. The 14th Five-Year Plan for High-Standard Cropland aims to expand the area of high-standard farming lands to 71.7 million ha by 2025 and to 80 million ha by 2030. These lands need sufficient irrigation facilities, road and electricity connections, soil and water conservation measures, and better environmental management. Resilience to extreme weather events will also need to increase. Improved farmlands will mean that grain outputs can be maintained.

Second, sustainable land management and climate-smart agriculture should be expanded to improve soil quality and strengthen climate resilience. Sustainable land management adopts integrated approaches to ensure land productivity while safeguarding its ecosystem services. Climate-smart agriculture can address interlinked challenges of food security and climate change through enhancing resilience and reducing emissions through less external inputs (e.g., energy, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides) and increased organic carbon in soil. Climate adaptation can be strengthened through crop varietal selection, plant breeding, cropping patterns, and ecosystem management. Climate change mitigation can be strengthened through reduced tillage, straw reapplication, improved fertilizer efficiency, and restoration of degraded lands.

Third, science-based technologies and approaches need to be promoted. Currently, crop lands using high efficiency water-saving irrigation totals about 23.3 million ha and is expected to expand to 34 million ha. This will greatly improve agricultural water use efficiency. While stabilizing or reducing chemicals use, application of fungi or organic fertilizers needs to be scaled up. More nature-based solutions should be applied to improve the agricultural environmental quality and enhance resilience, such as buffer zones, ecological ditches, and vegetative erosion control. Science-based monitoring of key soil and environmental indicators will be necessary.

Last, farmers’ incomes should be boosted through the optimal scaling of croplands, which can promote the application of farm standards more effectively and improve management efficiency. These will trigger greater labor productivity and the transfer of labor from farming to nonfarming activities, resulting in the more efficient use of resources, such as water, fertilizers, and machinery. Protected agriculture, including greenhouses, can also increase the economic outputs of the land. Opportunities should be explored to further develop value chains with greater reliance on higher-value crops and organic or green products.

In the end, it is farmers who own and manage the land, and their full engagement is crucial. Only with their awareness of new approaches and improved capacity to adopt them can the PRC achieve its aim of expanding prosperity and vitalizing rural society.