Some Hot Topics in Ecology and Resources Use (Guest Editors: MIN Qingwen, SHI Peili)

A Review of the Contemporary Eco-Agricultural Technologies in China

  • YANG Lun , 1 ,
  • LIU Moucheng 1 ,
  • YANG Xiao 1 ,
  • MIN Qingwen , 1, 2, *
  • 1. Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, China
  • 2. University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100049, China

YANG Lun, E-mail:

Received date: 2021-08-22

  Accepted date: 2021-12-22

  Online published: 2022-04-18

Supported by

The Consulting Research Project of Chinese Academy of Engineering(2021-XBZD-8)


Eco-agriculture is the principal measure for addressing the environmental issues caused by agriculture and an essential direction for agriculture in the future. Meanwhile, the development of eco-agriculture is inseparable from its technical support. At present, the eco-agricultural technologies commonly used in China can be divided into three categories according to their theoretical basis and practical types: the technologies used to realize the precision input of material resources, the technologies used to improve material circulation efficiency, and the technologies that use the principle of species symbiosis. Although these technologies provide essential support for developing eco-agriculture in China, there are also problems associated with their implementation, such as poor technical application and a low level of industrialization. Therefore, in the future development of eco-agriculture technology in China, the technologies producers should take the actual problems as guide and pay attention to the popularization, industrialization, and application of the technologies.

Cite this article

YANG Lun , LIU Moucheng , YANG Xiao , MIN Qingwen . A Review of the Contemporary Eco-Agricultural Technologies in China[J]. Journal of Resources and Ecology, 2022 , 13(3) : 511 -517 . DOI: 10.5814/j.issn.1674-764x.2022.03.015

1 Introduction

In past decades, world agriculture has always faced a trade- off between productivity and environmental risks. In terms of productivity, the global cereal yield has increased from 3097.97 kg ha-1 in 1998 to 4070.67 kg ha-1 in 2018, based on World Bank open data. But globally, moderate or severe food insecurity rose between 2015 and 2019, and now affects an estimated 25.9% of the world population—about 2 billion people, with women being more likely than men to face moderate or severe food insecurity (FAO, 2020). In terms of environmental risks or problems, agriculture has become an essential source of GHG emissions. One-third of global GHG emissions come from the food system. Global GHG emissions from the food system were 18 Gt CO2 equivalent per year (95% confidence interval (CI), 14-22 Gt CO2 equivalent per year) in 2015 (Crippa et al., 2021). Meanwhile, irresponsible agricultural production has also brought some challenges to food security and agricultural biodiversity.
In this context, the world has begun a trend of green development in agriculture, and eco-agriculture has gradually become the mainstream direction of agricultural development. In general, the goal of eco-agriculture is to reduce the negative impact of agriculture on the environment based on the practical realization of agricultural production functions, that is, to coordinate the social and economic benefits of agricultural production with the ecological and environmental benefits (Li et al., 2010). Achieving this goal relies on various techniques to maintain the management and operation of eco-agriculture. At present, according to the theoretical basis and application situation, we can summarize the contemporary eco-agriculture technologies commonly used in China into three aspects. One type of technologies is used to realize the precision input of material resources (such as water, land, fertilizers, and pesticides) in agricultural production. Another type is used to improve material circulation efficiency in the agricultural ecosystem. The third type uses the principle of species symbiosis in the agricultural ecosystem to promote the sustainable development of the agricultural ecosystem, such as the rice-fish system and aquaponics (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1 The technology system of contemporary eco-agriculture in China

2 The current situation of eco-agricultural technologies in China

2.1 The technologies used to realize the precision input of material resources

Water is one of the most essential factors influencing agriculture. At the global scale, food production is extremely water intensive, accounting for about 70% of global freshwater withdrawal and 90% of freshwater consumption (Siebert et al., 2010). However, most regions of China, especially the northern regions, are facing severe water shortages (Cao et al., 2019). In this context, establishing water-saving agricultural practices to improve water resource utilization is essential for developing eco-agriculture and a necessary means to deal with China's water shortage. Therefore, in the practice of eco-agriculture in China, local governments and small farmers are adopting various engineering and non-engineering measures to improve water usage efficiency, such as adopting different water-saving irrigation methods, developing multiple water sources, and implementing comprehensive utilization. The leading technologies used include high-efficiency water-saving irrigation technology, concealed pipe drainage technology, water and fertilizer integration technology, and efficient utilization technology of multiple water sources in farmland (Table 1).
Table 1 Some technologies used to realize the precision input of material resources
Resource Technology name Content
Water High-efficiency water-saving
irrigation technology
This technology includes measures such as sprinklers and drip irrigation. The water-saving effect can generally reach 30%, and it has the advantages of long irrigation time and short irrigation period (Grafton et al., 2018)
Concealed pipe drainage technology This technology involves burying pipelines with a water seepage function underground to control the groundwater level, adjust soil moisture, and improve soil physical and chemical properties. At present, this technology is also mainly used for drainage and salt discharge (Shi et al., 2017)
Water and fertilizer integration
This technology uses a pressure system to mix soluble fertilizers according to crop types and growing fertilizer requirements. A fertilizer solution is mixed with irrigation water through a controllable pipeline system to supply both water and fertilizer to the plants (Wang et al., 2014)
Efficient utilization technology of multiple water sources in farmland This technology realizes the efficient use of alternative water sources, such as shallow brackish and rainwater, to reduce deep groundwater withdrawal (Liu and Zhang, 2018)
Soil Conservation tillage This technology achieves water conservation and moisture conservation goals through straw residue treatment, no-tillage fertilization sowing, deep soil loosening, and weed pest control
Soil fertility technology This technology uses minerals (such as calcium chloride, potassium ore powder, phosphate rock powder), plants (such as legumes), and animals (such as animal manure) as fertilizer sources to improve soil fertility (He, 2019)
Soil erosion prevention and
management technology
This technology uses small watersheds to rationally arrange the land for agriculture, forestry, animal husbandry, and fishery to protect the water and soil (Li and Lai, 1994)
Pesticides & fertilizers Green plant protection technology This technology realizes the ecological prevention and control of crop diseases and insect pests through prediction and forecasting, physical prevention and control, biological prevention and control, source control of diseases and insect pests, and ecological regulation (Xia, 2010)
Fertilizer-reducing technology This technology can effectively reduce chemical fertilizer input and improve soil fertility through measures such as optimized fertilization by soil testing formulas, deep fertilization on the side of the machine, organic fertilizer replacement of some chemical fertilizers, and an anhydrous layer topdressing (Tang et al., 2019)
The land is undoubtedly the foundation of agriculture, and fertile soil can provide all kinds of necessary nutrients for the growth of agricultural plant products. At the same time, the fertile soil has a series of good physical and chemical properties, which can realize its restoration and adjustment within a specific range. However, soil quality plays a key role in the process of land degradation and desertification in dry and semi-arid regions, especially in cases where increased human pressure negatively impacts natural resources owing to climatic changes and landscape transformations (Salvati and Carlucci, 2015). Therefore, in the practice of ecological agriculture in China, local governments and small farmers are using various technical means to promote the fertility and physical and chemical properties of soil. Several soil fertility maintenance techniques are commonly used, such as conservational tillage, soil fertility technology, and soil erosion prevention and management technology (Table 1).
In addition, pesticides and fertilizers play a major role in guaranteeing the high yields of contemporary agriculture. As critical agricultural inputs, they are related to the security and quality of agricultural products. However, the irrational use of pesticides and fertilizers may also cause problems such as non-point source pollution and increased resistance to plant diseases and insect pests (Zhang and Wang, 2002). Therefore, to solve these problems, green plant protection technology and fertilizer-reducing technology have developed rapidly, gradually evolving into essential technologies for eco-agriculture (Table 1).

2.2 The technologies used to improve material circulation efficiency

The agricultural ecosystem is an artificial ecosystem. The system can produce more products and provide various beneficial functions when the system's material circulation and energy flow are efficient (Li and Lai, 1994). Similar to the natural ecosystem, the various components of the agricultural ecosystem influence and interact with each other. However, the agricultural ecosystem cannot exist in isolation and will inevitably be linked to other external systems, such as natural ecosystems and socio-economic systems. Therefore, by promoting material recycling within the agricultural ecosystem and with the external systems, the material recycling mode of the entire system can be changed from the traditional “resource-product-waste” model to the “resource-product-renewable resource” model. At present, the material recycling technologies used in the practice of eco-agriculture in China mainly include agricultural residue utilization technologies and compound agricultural systems (Table 2).
Table 2 Some technologies used to improve material circulation efficiency
Technology type Technology name Content
Agricultural residue utilization technologies The utilization of crop straw as fertilizer This technology includes the direct return of straw to the field (such as straw mulching and return to the area) and indirect return (such as rapid decomposing, returning to the field by stacking) (Chen et al., 2018)
The feed product technology for vegetable residues This technology converts vegetable residues into feed by biological or physical processing, which replaces all or part of the feed (Yang et al., 2014)
Biocontrol agents in the soil
microbial community
This technology uses wastes such as straw as carriers to apply beneficial biocontrol bacteria to the soil in order to provide CO2, increase the ground temperature, and prevent and inhibit disease (Zhang et al., 2002)
Composting reactor This technology uses a highly automated composting reactor to realize the timely and harmless treatment of manure and other organic waste (Zhang et al., 2014)
compound agricultural system
Mulberry-dyke-fish-pond system This system is composed of mulberry, silkworm, and fish. It is an interrelated system that fully executes the production potential and makes reasonable use of the land-water resources (Zhong, 1980)
Pig-biogas-fruit model This model organically integrates biogas digesters, pig houses, toilets, orchards, and micro-pools. Livestock and poultry manure is fermented into the ponds to produce biogas and fertilizer, and the biogas and fertilizer are used for cooking, lighting, and planting (Wang et al., 2013)
Agricultural residue refers to the organic substances discarded during the entire agricultural production process, and mainly includes plant residues generated in agriculture and forestry production; animal residues generated in animal husbandry and fishery production; processing residual waste generated during agricultural processing and rural-urban household garbage (Sun et al., 2005). The harmless treatment and recycling of these agricultural residues are essential to rural ecological civilization and the agricultural ecosystem. Agricultural residue utilization technologies include the utilization of crop straw as fertilizer, the feed product technology for vegetable residues, biocontrol agents in the soil microbial community and composting reactors (Table 2).
Table 3 Some technologies that use the principle of species symbiosis
Technology type Technology name Content
Ecological planting and breeding in rice fields Rice-fish system In the rice-fish system, rice and weeds are producers. Grass carp, carp, and other fish are consumers, and bacteria and fungi are decomposers
Aquaponics system An aquaponics system organically combines aquaculture and hydroponic cultivation to produce two kinds of economic crops (aquatic products and vegetables) simultaneously (Qiu et al., 2021)
Agroforestry Non-timber
The non-timber forestry-based economy is a kind of forest agricultural system that fully uses forest resources and shade space. It combines under-forest planting, under-forest aquaculture, forest landscape utilization, and under-forest product processing to obtain win-win economic and ecological benefits through proper management
Rotation is a method of planting different crops on the same field. Intercropping is a planting method in which two or more crops are planted alternately in the same area and within the same growth period. Interplanting refers to planting between rows of crops in the late growth period of the previous crops or transplanting the produce of the subsequent crops (Li and Lai, 1994)
Marine ecological agriculture
Fish-algae system The fish-algae system uses a variety of large seaweeds to treat the wastewater produced by intensive fish farming. It can realize the mutual supplementation of the ecological functions of large seaweeds and marine fishes and improve the quality of aquaculture water (Mao et al., 2008; Wang et al., 2020)
Shrimp-algae system The shrimp-algae system can achieve economic and ecological benefits through the co-cultivation of large tropical or temperate economic seaweeds like kelp and laver in the prawn ponds (Dong et al., 2007)
In the shellfish-algae system, the leading role of shellfish is to filter phytoplankton and organic particles in the water, forming a large amount of sediment which provides nutrients for benthic algae (Yang and Zhou, 1998)
Marine ranch The marine ranch is a fishery resource proliferation technology that uses artificial reefs, seaweed beds, and seagrass beds to achieve biological proliferation and ecological monitoring (Liu et al., 2021)
In general, greater diversity is associated with greater ecosystem stability, as is commonly predicted by models of multispecies competition (Tilman et al., 2006). Thus, the high-efficiency compound agricultural system can provide a high-quality, high-yield, and wide variety of farm products through the efficient connections between agricultural organisms (crops and animals), natural organisms and the environment, making full use of limited land, water, and other natural resources. At present, the mulberry-dyke-fish-pond system and the pig-biogas-fruit model represent good examples of the high-efficiency compound agricultural systems used in China and even globally (Table 2).

2.3 The technologies that use the principle of species symbiosis

There are many different interrelationships between the various organisms in nature. These interrelationships can be divided into two main categories of confrontation and symbiosis. The goal of eco-agriculture is to control, coordinate, and make good use of the relationships between species and give play to the mutually beneficial symbiosis and partially beneficial symbiosis mechanisms among biological populations to obtain the best possible economic and ecological benefits. For example, humans have discovered long ago that crops and legumes planted together produce higher yields than when they are planted separately (Sprent and Parsons, 2000). At present, the technologies that use the principle of species symbiosis in the practice of eco-agriculture in China mainly include three types: Rice field ecological planting and breeding technology, agroforestry management technology, and offshore ecological agriculture technology.
The ecological planting and breeding in rice fields are representative technologies in the practice of eco-agriculture in China, such as the rice-fish system and the aquaponics system. The rice-fish system has a history of thousands of years in China. The artificially constructed rice-fish system can achieve the goal of increasing both rice production and fish harvesting. The rice-fish systems are common in the mountainous areas in the Provinces of Zhejiang, Fujian, Jiangxi, Guizhou, Hunan, Hubei, and Sichuan. In recent years, based on the rice-fish system, similar rice-shrimp, rice-crab, rice-eel, rice-loach, rice-vegetable-fish, and rice-duckweed-fish systems have emerged. Compared with single planting, the ecological planting and breeding in rice fields have outstanding value in preventing and controlling pests and diseases (Ma et al., 2019), improving rice varieties (Ma et al., 2021), accumulating soil nutrients (Zhong et al., 2021), protecting biodiversity (Wang et al., 2021), and reducing GHGs emissions (Xu et al., 2017).
Agroforestry is a traditional kind of land use in agricultural practices around the world. It refers to artificially combining perennial woody plants (such as trees, shrubs, palms, and bamboos) with other cultivated plants (such as crops, medicinal plants, economical plants, and fungi) and animals on the same land management unit (Li and Lai, 1994). At present, the fast-growing eco-agriculture practices in agroforestry in China are the non-timber forestry-based economy and rotation, interplanting, and intercropping.
Large seaweed and seagrass species are one of the primary producers in the marine ecosystem. As a result, they can significantly reduce the hydrodynamic forces of ocean currents and waves and the characteristics of the current field in the sea area (Wang et al., 2020). In recent years, the eutrophication problem caused by the pollution from marine aquaculture has become increasingly serious. Thus, many fishery farmers have started using large seaweeds (such as Gracilaria, Ulva, and Enteromorpha) as biofilters to polyculture with fish, shellfish, shrimp, and crabs. The polyculture of fish and algae can reduce the nutrient load of the aquaculture water body, which can improve aquaculture's economic and ecological benefits (Mao et al., 2006). In this context, various marine ecological agriculture technologies such as the fish-algae system, shrimp-algae system, and shellfish-algae system, and marine ranches have gradually emerged.

3 The problems and suggestions for eco-agricultural technologies in China

First, in the practice of eco-agriculture in China, there is a phenomenon of “disconnection” between theory and practice. Some technologies are still at the level of theoretical research or small-scale experimental fields, or farmers would be required to have strong skills when using these technologies. Various advanced technologies have not been widely used in large-scale agricultural production. For instance, with the technologies to realize the precision input of material resources, the indirect straw returning technology can fertilize the soil and form a virtuous cycle of “straw- feed-livestock-fertilizer-food”, which has outstanding technical advantages. However, the indirect straw return technology has a higher application threshold than the direct straw return technology, so smallholder farmers need to spend a lot of time and energy on training before they can master this technology. As a result, most farmers still choose to return straw directly to the field. Therefore, in the future development of eco-agricultural technologies, researchers and the government should fully consider the “operability” of the technology at the application and practice level and realize that small farmers with low education levels also need to be able to quickly master any new eco-agricultural technology. At the same time, local governments should actively cultivate technical talents from local agricultural technology stations.
Second, the industrialization of many eco-agricultural technologies is low and in its infancy stage, especially compared with countries such as Israel, which has realized “factory agriculture”, and the United States, which has initially realized “artificial intelligence in agriculture”. Meanwhile, the research, application, and promotion of most technologies in China rely on the financial support of governments. For example, in most areas of northern China, local governments provide support for conservational tillage in the form of subsidies to farmers with farming equipment and after-sales services. However, this form of technology promotion that relies on financial support will bring more significant financial pressure to the government, especially in China's areas with low agricultural budgets. This financial pressure will inevitably result in more significant limitations in the promotion and application of the technology. In addition, in the popularization, industrialization, application, and subsidy policy formulation of some technologies, there is a lack of necessary cost-benefit accounting. Therefore, in the future development of eco-agricultural technology, the research, application, and promotion of eco-agricultural technology should fully attract corporate capital, non-governmental organization capital, and other social capital participation.
Third, eco-agricultural technology's current theoretical research and practical application mainly adopt a “top-down” approach. Scientists and governments generally summarize and promote eco-agricultural technologies suitable for popularization based on academic research progress. Then the technology will be disseminated from the central, provincial, and local governments to the farmers. However, this “top-down” process may cause the promoted technologies to be out of touch with the growers needs, which means that these technologies can only partially solve the practical problems farmers face in the short term. For instance, in the technologies for the precision input of material resources, the effect of green plant protection technology has an extended period, and farmers need to carry out ecological plant protection work at the early stage of planting decision-making. From the perspective of time cost, this takes significantly longer than the fast-acting pesticides, and the effect may be weaker. Therefore, it cannot solve the sudden and short-term pest and disease problems farmers face, causing most farmers to refuse to adopt green plant protection technology in production practice. On the other hand, agricultural machinery is a crucial material input in agricultural production. In the past decade, the number of agricultural machinery options has kept increasing in China. However, this brings the problem of redundancy, which means some agricultural machinery is idle or unable to adapt to the current production model. Therefore, in the future development of eco-agricultural technology, researchers and the government should thoroughly investigate the main problems farmers face in agricultural practice and conduct theoretical research on eco-agricultural technology through a “bottom-up” approach, from the farmers up to the central government.

4 Conclusions

Eco-agriculture is an important measure for dealing with the environmental problems caused by current unreasonable agricultural development. It is also an important direction for future agricultural action in China and the world. At the same time, eco-agriculture needs support from various advanced technologies. In the form of a literature review, this paper summarized the leading eco-agricultural technologies adopted in China in the past few decades, identified the existing problems, and made suggestions for the future.
Currently, the eco-agricultural technologies commonly used in China can be divided into three categories. The first type is the technologies used to realize the precision input of material resources, which aims to realize the precise input of material resources such as water, soil, pesticides, and fertilizers. Such technologies include high-efficiency water-saving irrigation technology, conservational tillage, and green plant protection technology. The second type is the technologies used to improve material circulation efficiency, which aim to promote the agricultural ecosystem's material recycling efficiency, such as the utilization of crop straw as fertilizer, the feed product technology for vegetable residues, and the mulberry-dyke-fish-pond system. The third type is the technologies that use the principle of species symbiosis, including the rice-fish system, non-timber forestry-based economy, and fish-algae system.
In the practice of eco-agriculture in China, these technologies provide an irreplaceable and essential supporting role, but there are also some problems. On the one hand, some technologies remain only theoretical or experimental and have not been widely used in large-scale agricultural production. On the other hand, the industrialization of some technologies is at a low level and in its infancy stage, and requires additional financial support from the government for development. In addition, some technologies have not been researched based on the actual problems faced by farmers, so the promoted technologies cannot solve fundamental issues. Therefore, scientists and the government should pay more attention to the popularization, industrialization, and application of eco-agricultural technologies in the future.
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