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Intensive use of the arable soil made the use of fertilizer imperative to replace nutrients and to help improve yields. Organic fertilizers have long supplied the bulk of soil nutrients and have helped to maintain the structure of the soil. Over the centuries, use of organic fertilizers also increased with the growth in population and with the increased size of livestock herds. Peasants have traditionally used a large proportion of their labor in collecting organic materials for fertilizers. Use has been especially heavy in south China, where more intensive cropping has required more fertilizer and where the sources of fertilizer have been more abundant. Chemical fertilizers, however, have been used more widely since the 1960s. Use of chemical fertilizers in 1985 was more than 150 kilograms per hectare, measured in nutrient weight. The country's considerable future requirements will have to be met by chemical fertilizer because of the natural limits on rapid increases in production of organic fertilizers.

Production and imports of chemical fertilizers increased rapidly under the "agriculture first" programs of the early 1960s. The domestic industry was expanded, partly with the help of imported fertilizer factories, and production reached 1.7 million tons by 1965. Imports in 1965 were more than 600,000 tons. In the mid-1960s the government also began to emphasize the production of nitrogen fertilizer in small plants, usually operated by counties, that yielded about 10,000 tons per year. Their products were used locally, which helped conserve transportation resources. In 1972 the government contracted to import thirteen large-scale urea plants, each capable of producing more than 1 million tons of standard nitrogen fertilizer a year. By 1980 these were in operation, and total chemical fertilizer production in 1985 was 13.4 million tons, of which 12.3 million tons were nitrogen fertilizer. Imports added another 7.6 million tons.

In the 1980s chemical fertilizer use per hectare was less than the Japanese and Korean averages but more than the Indonesian and Indian averages. Future production and imports were likely to emphasize phosphate and potassium content in order to balance the nutrients obtained from organic fertilizers and from existing factories. Institutional reforms in the early 1980s encouraged households to cut costs and maximize earnings, which probably led to more efficient use of chemical fertilizer as farmers applied fertilizer to those crops giving the highest rates of return.

Data as of July 1987

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