Resource Use and Resource Economy

Fundamental Strategic Shift Required by the Expensive Ecological Policy in Chinese Grasslands

  • ZHU Jiapei , 1, 2 ,
  • XU Xingliang 3, 4 ,
  • LI Tong 5 ,
  • LIU Yali 5 ,
  • YANG Yaqian 1, 2 ,
  • CUI Xiaoyong , 4, 6, 7, *
  • 1. Sino-Danish College, University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100049, China
  • 2. Sino-Danish Center for Education and Research, Beijing 100049, China
  • 3. Key Laboratory of Ecosystem Network Observation and Modeling, Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, China
  • 4. CAS Center for Excellence in Tibetan Plateau Earth Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, China
  • 5. College of Resources and Environment, University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100049, China
  • 6. College of Life Sciences, University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100049, China
  • 7. Beijing Yanshan Earth Critical Zone and Surface Fluxes National Research Station, University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 101408, China
* CUI Xiaoyong, E-mail:

ZHU Jiapei, E-mail:

Received date: 2021-03-17

  Accepted date: 2021-06-02

  Online published: 2022-10-12

Supported by

The Strategic Priority Research Program (A) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences(XDA20050103)

International Partnership Program of Chinese Academy of Sciences(Global Dryland Programme)

International Partnership Program of Chinese Academy of Sciences(121311KYSB20170004)

The National Natural Science Foundation of China(42001267)


Grasslands have critically important ecological and economic values while most of them have been suffering from various degrees of degradation in China due to overgrazing. The “Forage-Livestock Balance” (FLB) policy has been implemented for more than a decade, aims to balance the relationship between forage productivity and grazing consumption of grasslands by livestock. According to the review of statistical data and literatures on policy evaluation, FLB-dominated subsidies for grassland ecological conservation policies are ineffective on grassland restoration, livestock reduction in some overloaded areas and improvement on herdsmen livelihood. To deal with the dilemma, we suggest a fundamental shift of strategy from controlling livestock numbers to maintaining and improving grassland health (MIGH) based on ecological theories, and promote the sustainable development of grassland in China. The results show that, FLB policy failed to obtain expected benefits mainly because it interfered with the herders' autonomous use of contracted grasslands along with the defects of its underlying theory and methodologies. Implementing reward and punishment based on ecosystem health will not only motivate herders to manage their grassland autonomously, but also be more scientific and feasible than FLB.

Cite this article

ZHU Jiapei , XU Xingliang , LI Tong , LIU Yali , YANG Yaqian , CUI Xiaoyong . Fundamental Strategic Shift Required by the Expensive Ecological Policy in Chinese Grasslands[J]. Journal of Resources and Ecology, 2022 , 13(6) : 955 -963 . DOI: 10.5814/j.issn.1674-764x.2022.06.001

1 Introduction

Up to 90% of China's grasslands were degraded to some extent once after 1980s due to overgrazing (Wei, 2006). To tackle this issue, the “Forage-Livestock Balance” (FLB) subsidy was first adopted as a pilot policy in some banners in Inner Mongolia in 1996 (Yang and Hou, 2005), more than 10 years after promulgation of the Grassland Law of the People's Republic of China, which requires grassland contractors to take measures to keep the balance between forage yield and the number of livestock raised. In 2011, the FLB policy was extensively applied by the central government to nationwide grasslands, firstly in 8 provinces and then extended to 13 provinces in 2013, as the major part of a new policy, i.e. Ecological Subsidy and Award System (ESAS), which also includes the subsidy for banning grazing, the subsidy for herder's production improvement, and the reward to local governments for policy implementation (Zhang et al., 2019). Since 2011, the total amount of subsidies by the central government for the ESEA has exceeded ten thousand million yuan, according to Ministry of Finance.
The implementation of FLB policy is stipulated by the “Measures for the Balance of Fodder and Livestock” formulated by the Ministry of Agriculture of China (now it is Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, MOA) in 2005. Based on normal local climate condition, forage production is estimated. Annual animal demand is standardized to sheep unit. Correspondingly, the theoretical carrying capacity is calculated by dividing forage production by annual animal demand, considering grassland type, grazing period, degradation degree, edible proportion, and regrowth rate of the rangelands. These essential parameters are provided by county governments, thus applicable to the whole county. Firstly, the calculation is performed at provincial level to determine the total livestock of the province. Then, each prefecture or county performs similar calculations. Similarly, the total livestock number in each household is calculated and allocated by the bureau in charge under the county government. The livestock number of each household by the end of a year shall not exceed a quota, which remains unchanged for a period of 3-5 years. The quota for each household will be recalculated to reflect changes in climate, rangeland, and other conditions every 3 to 5 years.
Although the subsidy policy has invested a large amount of financial support, manpower and material resources, FLB policy has uncertain effects on grasslands' both ecological and economic benefits, primarily because the policy embodies theoretical and practical defects. In this research, expecting to overcome some flaws of FLB, we propose a strategy shift from controlling the number of livestock to maintaining grassland quality. Based on the essence and core contents of MIGH policy, we further provide the technique supports and social managements needed. This new pattern of managing grassland will not only offer herders more autonomy, but also improve the awareness of herdsmen to consciously maintain grassland health.

2 Restricted effects of FLB policy

The data from Annual National Grassland Monitoring Report showed an overall improvement of grasslands in large scale after implementing FLB in some regions. In 2015, the vegetation coverage of grasslands in China reached 54%, 3% higher than that in 2011 when the policy started to be implemented, and in 2015, the total fresh grass production of natural grasslands in China was 1.028×109 t, 2.55% higher than that in 2011. Recently, China's artificial grassland has rapidly expanded, with 2.09×107 ha in 2013, more than twice that of 1990 (Feng, 2019). Over 70% published materials have indicated that FLB imposes positive ecological effects (Li et al., 2016b), represented by the increase in average height of vegetation and biomass yield (Bao and Zhang, 2015; Guo, 2015; Wei and Hou, 2015; Hao, 2016; Shi, 2017; Yin, 2017; Li, 2018; Qi et al., 2018; Wang, 2018).
Based on the data of sequential remote sensing, climate, and vegetation, the CASA model shows that, from 1993 to 2010 before the policy started, the total NPP of grassland decreased at the linear rate of ‒2.312×1012 g yr‒1. Four years after the initiation of the policy, from 2011 to 2015, the total NPP of grassland increased at the linear rate of 7.00×1011 g yr‒1 with fluctuation. However, the increase in grassland production was mainly ascribed to changes in total solar radiation and precipitation (Liu et al., 2018), indicating that the implementation of the policy cannot fully explain the improvement of grassland. As a result, the grassland area experienced a net increase of 11.13×105 ha and 19.64×105 ha in western and northwestern China but decreased by 8.51×105 ha in southwestern China from 2000 to 2015 (Gang et al., 2019). Combining NOAA/AVHRR NDVI with climate data, the estimated aboveground biomass density (g m-2) of natural grasslands in Inner Mongolia, Gansu, Xinjiang, Ningxia, North China and the whole China has linearly increased since 2005, while no obvious trend was observed after FLB policy application in Qinghai and Tibet (Shen et al., 2016).
However, some studies indicated that grassland ecosystem conditions were not significantly improved after implementing FLB (Li et al., 2016b). For instance, there was no obvious ecological benefits in most region of Inner Mongolia from 2010 to 2015, and only about 3% of the grasslands slowed the degradation trend, nearly 10% of the grasslands accelerated restoration, and very few parts of grassland were getting worse (Li et al., 2017). Further studies at local scale showed improvement of grassland quality from 2005 to 2010, but deterioration from 2010 to 2015 in Xilin Gol League, where the FLB policy was first piloted in China (Wang, 2019). After the implementation of FLB, only 33.2% of the grassland vegetation in 8 counties in northwest Sichuan was restored, while 60.2% showed no significant change, and even a few areas became worse (Huang, 2015). From 2005 to 2016, over 60% of grasslands deteriorated in terms of greenness rate in surveyed counties in the source area of Yellow River, and 55.0% of the grasslands deceased in net primary productivity. Vegetation coverage declined with fluctuation, and the overall deterioration trend was not effectively curbed (Wu, 2019). In Hulunbuir of Inner Mongolia, areas with decreased grassland quality composite index accounted for 60.0% and 24.9% of the total grassland area in 2000 and 2015, respectively (Li et al., 2016a). Moreover, investigations showed the implementation of the policies could not fully explain grassland quality changes in some regions or periods, and there was a large discrepancy in interpretation regarding the impacts of FLB policy on grasslands among local governments, researchers, and herdsmen (Yang et al., 2017). It was found that herder's knowledge was reliable in assessing rangeland quality (Dabasso et al., 2012; Jamsranjav et al., 2019). Most Chinese herders had the perception that there was no obvious change or even more serious degradation of rangelands after grazing prohibition (Yang et al., 2017).
FLB policy aimed to restore degraded grasslands by reducing stocking rate. Statistical data from MOA showed a decrease of national-wide stocking rate by approximately 7% from 2005 to 2009, then a rebound from 2010 to 2013, with a slightly lower rate in 2013 than that in 2009. The theoretical carrying capacity had maintained stable till 2009, and then linearly increased by approximately 10% to 2013, due to the improvement of grassland production (Ministry of Agriculture of China, 2014). In some places, herd structure and raising pattern approached optimization (Cao et al., 2020). However, the target of reducing grazing rate has not been fully achieved. From 2011 to 2014 during the initial stage of the FLB policy, about 49%, 51%, and 67% of the counties achieved the target of reducing livestock set by FLB policy in the key natural grassland, pastoral, and semi-pastoral counties, respectively (Hu, 2016). In 2017, the average overloading rate in 268 semi-pastoral counties was 30% lower than that in 2010, but it still reached 14.1%. Among the key natural grasslands in China, the average livestock overloading rate in 2015 was 19% in Tibet, 10% in Inner Mongolia, 16% in Xinjiang, 13% in Qinghai, 13.5% in Sichuan, and 16% in Gansu, indicating that the overloading situation of grasslands has not been fundamentally changed and the implementation of FLB still faces big challenges (Feng, 2019). Local scale studies in Xilinhot showed that, no matter in forbidden grazing area or in the FLB area, the reduced livestock number was merely 53% of the policy target, as more than 30% of the herders were still in overgrazing, who held herds more than 5 times of the FLB quotas (Wang et al., 2016). The overloading rate in Sonid Right Banner in Xilin Gol League soared up to 131% in 2009 and remained as high as 117% in 2014. The other two counties, i.e., East Ujimqin Banner and Xilinhot, had much lower overgrazing rates of 15.5% and 13.2% in 2009, which increased substantially to 28.2% and 42.6% in 2014, respectively (Feng, 2019). The distinct patterns of change in overgrazing in various regions need more explorations of the underlying mechanisms to provide a basis to improve the FLB policy.
In terms of economic benefits, the effects of FLB are also mixed. Some studies showed that ecological subsidy policy produced significant economic benefits and promoted husbandry production (Wang, 2018). According to a study conducted in 268 pastoral and semi-pastoral counties, FLB directly increased pastoralists' policy subsidy income. From 2011 to 2013, the net income per capita in pastoral and semi-pastoral counties increased by 49.13% and 45.73%, respectively, and the proportion of husbandry income also increased by 5.18% and 1.21% (Yang et al., 2016). Some questionnaire surveys also showed a promotion of herdsmen's total income (Wei and Hou, 2015; Cui et al., 2017; Qi et al., 2018) and change of income structure due to this policy (Wang et al., 2016; Yin, 2017). However, still approximately 60% studies showed FLB policy had negative impacts on herdsmen's total income till 2015 (Li et al., 2016b). Although FLB policy may increase the total income of herders, the net household income extremely significantly decreased (Yin et al., 2019). As a result, the policy significantly decreased the satisfaction level of herdsmen (Zhang et al., 2019). In addition, it is ineffective to provide herders cash compensation to reduce their stocking rates (Li and Bennett, 2019).
The large divergence in assessment and limited effects of FLB policy may be resulted from the following points. Firstly, most of grasslands in China are distributed in arid and semiarid regions. Forage production is heavily controlled by climatic factors, and it is difficult to determine whether or how much improvements in grassland health and productivity are linked to policy implementation. Hence, ecological benefits of FLB are hard to evaluate on a large scale, and the focus on livestock number lacks a systematic perspective to evaluate policy effectiveness as well. Secondly, the effectiveness of FLB varies greatly from place to place and from time to time. Some regions achieved the livestock reducing goals in certain periods, while other cases had little or uncertain effects, and even the interests of herdsmen were harmed in some regions (Li, 2011a; Engler et al., 2018; Yin et al., 2019). Although FLB policy has be implemented over national scale, its uncertain or mixed consequences on grassland quality make it suffer from criticisms and queries. More investigations and evaluations are required to clarify the consequences of the FLB policy for its improvement. In general, the theoretical basis and implementing measures from FLB itself are unreasonable, which have fundamentally led to poor ecological effects. Meanwhile, poor enforcement is the immediate cause of policy failure in reducing stocking rate. The mixed economic benefits resulted from unreasonable compensation system, which may harm the interests of herdsman. The development problems facing pastoral, that is, large population and their increasing requirements, also hinder the implementation of the policy.

3 Main flaws of the FLB policy

3.1 Theoretical basis

Various causes have been put forward to explain the uncertainties of FLB policy effects. One major criticism pointed to the scientific basis of equilibrium theory, which considered that the dynamic equilibrium state exists in the grasslands and the grazing intensity should not exceed the threshold of carrying capacity. However, many grasslands are not in equilibrium state yet. For instance, Engler et al. (2018) argued about two thirds of grasslands in China and Mongolia as equilibrium system and those in west Inner Mongolia and south Xinjiang as non-equilibrium system, setting 33% as the threshold of inter-annual coefficient of precipitation variation. Though this threshold was regarded generally applicable to world arid and semi-arid grasslands, several studies have indicated the grasslands in northern China are better characterized by non-equilibrium system (Yang and Hou, 2005; Li, 2011b; Li and Li, 2012; Xu et al., 2014; Hong, 2016). Under this situation, natural factors strongly influence grassland ecosystems. Due to the inter-annual, seasonal and spatial variations of rainfall, the relationship between grassland and livestock is more complicated than that of only time and space dimensions, leading to the obstacles in grassland management. Therefore, it is inappropriate to set average carrying capacity standard over a large scale or a long period due to fluctuant forage production. In addition, some studies have indicated that the ecosystem has a mixed feature of both equilibrium and non-equilibrium (Sullivan and Rohde, 2002). The sustainable use of grassland cannot be simply achieved by controlling the number of livestock; instead, adaptive grazing and utilization regulation should be established, according to the growth pattern of the vegetation (Li and Li, 2012; Xu, 2014).

3.2 Implementing measures

Additionally, there are some policy faults in methods of capacity calculation, livestock number allocation to each family, and livestock monitoring and inspection. In theory, there are still disputes on the relevant parameters, calculation, and allocation methods (Xu et al., 2014). In practice, FLB is a top-down policy which needs the coordination and cooperation among governments at all levels and herdsmen. However, on the one hand, local authorities may have limited professional expertise, financial support, staff, and flexibility to set more reasonable and adaptive limiting livestock number and management system. on the other hand, herdsmen may have quite different perception on grasslands and policies, low adaptation capacity, and small husbandry scale. They hold a large herd of livestock due to traditional customs in many regions. Besides, social and economic development increases the demand for animal by-products and better accesses to external markets, which dramatically enhances overloading of livestock (Wei 2006; Li 2011b; Bateer, 2012; Hou et al., 2019; Hu et al., 2019; Li and Bennett, 2019; Qin et al., 2019).

3.3 Compensation system

Another important deficiency might be the unreasonable compensation system that has a negative impact on herdsmen's livelihood. Most of the questionnaire surveys conducted in typical pastoral areas showed that the grassland ecological compensation standard is much lower than herdsmen's psychological willingness, and it cannot make up for family income losses brought by reducing livestock (Wei and Hou, 2015; Hao, 2016; Wang et al., 2016; Qi, 2017; Shi, 2017; Qi et al., 2018; Zhang et al., 2018; Wu, 2019; Byrne et al., 2020). In addition, families with small and medium-sized herd are the main body of overloading. In many places, local officers ignored the heterogeneity of overloading and failed to differentiate compensation standards, resulting in imbalance between livestock reduction and ecological compensation, which further aggravates the income gap among herders (Guo, 2015; Qi, 2017; Zhao, 2019; Zhou et al., 2019). Besides, it is suggested that governments diversify the way of subsidy and pay it timely to meet the actual needs of the herdsmen (Li et al., 2017; Yin, 2017).

3.4 Social factors

Still another essential defect is the ignorance of large population in pastoral sector and their need for development. In 2000, each herdsman only owned 6 ha, decreasing by 60% compared to the value of 15 ha in 1949. Meanwhile, the proportion of rural residents remained high in the six main pastoral provinces in 2014, from the lowest 40.5% in Inner Mongolia to the highest 74.3% in Tibet (Department of Rural Surveys of National Bureau of Statistics, 2015). Furthermore, decrease in the population of farmers and herders may not lead to decrease in grazing pressure. On the contrary, it may be accompanied by increasing livestock, due to elevation of living standards and expectation for better life (Wu et al., 2015; Qin et al., 2019). Moreover, herdsmen's traditional concept may conflict with FLB policy demand. For example, many Tibetans and Mongolians regard livestock as a symbol of wealth. Due to religious faith, some herdsmen are unwilling to kill even the elderly livestock. It makes the regulation fall into dilemma of keeping large herds under herder's life pressure and cultural belief or reducing livestock for grassland sustainability (Cao et al., 2012).

4 Alternative suggestions

Due to the above-mentioned limitations, some modifications have been suggested to improve the policy, e.g., combination of livestock-forage balance and rotational grazing or banning grazing in spring (Qin et al., 2019). A shift from determining the livestock number based on the grassland production to determining forage according to the market demand of livestock was also proposed to encourage the purchase of forage from farming areas (Hong, 2016). Based on various theories in ecology (Fig. 1), we further suggest a solution of shifting the strategy from “limiting livestock number” to “maintaining or improving grassland health” (MIGH) to deal with the dilemma of the current FLB policy. According to the law, the herders rent grasslands administrated by the governments. Within this legal frame, the herders have the right to determine the number and structure of their livestock, while the governments have the right to require the herders to maintain the quality of the grasslands. However, the current FLB policy interferes with herders' freedom of grassland use, with a mandatory limit on the number of livestock for each household.
Fig. 1 The scheme of grassland quality based policy integrates the theory of alternative stable states, ecological service and economic benefits over the context of grassland quality.

Note: X-axis represents grassland quality from high to low. Y-axis represents the value (dimensionless) of each parameter. The dark green line describes the dynamics of grassland net primary production (NPP) with grassland quality caused by grazing. An increase at early stage is ascribed to complementary growth of grasses under light grazing intensity. Light blue line represents the dynamics of ecological service (ES), which reaches the maximum at appropriate grazing intensity. The dark blue refers to economic benefits without considering ecological service (EB1), which shows higher economic income at the cost of grassland quality. The red line describes economic benefits considering ecological service (EB2). When it reaches higher values, the ecological service is also higher. The dark yellow area between EB1 and EB2 represents the cost of grassland degradation for economic benefits from overgrazing, which should be taken into account for ecological compensation. The purple line represents alternative stable states (ASS). When economic benefit reaches the maximum, the potential tipping point also arrives, which induces grassland shift to a worse stable state. When grasslands with low quality restore back to high quality state, a hysteresis occurs. The yellow bar represents the conditions resulted from Forage-Livestock Balance policy (FLB), while the purple bar represents the conditions resulted from Maintaining and Improving Grassland Health policy (MIGH).

4.1 Essence and core contents of new policy

The essence of MIGH policy is to safeguard the grassland use right of herdsmen as legal contractors so as to motivate their productivity, and meanwhile to defend the grasslands by scientific monitoring with rewards and penalties. This policy includes three aspects: 1) Establishing an index system of grassland quality and health status; 2) Dynamically evaluating grassland quality and health status; 3) Providing effective ecological compensation (Fig. 2). Compared to the current FLB policy, this MIGH policy pays more attention to grassland ecosystem itself. It integrates grassland management with the complex of ecological, economic, and social coupling, rather than simply relying on regulation of the policy. The new policy is thus in line with the development needs of local herdsmen. Since grassland is the lifeblood of herdsmen and an important carrier of sustainable development of local economy, the herders have the internal motivation to maintain and promote grassland health (Gao, 2012). Therefore, through comprehensive, systematic, scientific, and dynamic monitoring supplemented with training of herders on evaluation, management, guidance and improvement of grassland ecosystem, grassland protection is consisting with herders' interests. In contrast to FLB policy, ecological compensation in MIGH policy takes both tools of reward and punishment, with an emphasis of punishment. It will pay awards for herdsmen who maintain better grassland quality, and charge those who decrease grassland quality as penalty within an ecological compensation frame.
Fig. 2 Proposed framework of the grassland quality based policy (Improved forage-livestock balance policy)

Note: It consists of an executive committee including relevant departments of local governments. The roles of these local authorities will be shifted from command to service by providing technical supports and taking responsibility of social management. Potential indices of grassland quality assessment are listed with advanced technologies that are applicable to farm scale, which can be measured by using remote sensing (blue), hyperspectral detection (black) and mid-infrared spectroscopy (red), respectively. These indices should be parameterized by further researches incorporating climate, grassland type, relief, and other local characteristics. Third parties are designed to involve in this framework, e.g., assessing grassland quality of each farmer and training herdsmen. Multi-household and grassland transfer are stimulated by technical and financial support.

4.2 Technology supports

Grassland quality and health index system mainly include essential and relatively easily measurable soil and vegetation indicators, such as soil physical and chemical properties index, ANPP (aboveground net primary production), noxious weeds, crude protein, and so on (Fig. 2). Advanced technologies, such as mid-infrared spectroscopy, remote sensing, and hyperspectral detection by drones, can be employed to measure soil properties including organic matter content, bulk density, texture, cation exchange capacity, 1500 kPa water, and essential vegetation properties (including ANPP and forage crude protein content of grassland) (Thulin et al., 2014; Hu et al., 2015; Al-bukhari et al., 2018; Seybold et al., 2019; Liu et al., 2020). Indicator system can be established by experts to determine the level of rangeland quality, incorporate indigenous knowledge (Jamsranjav et al., 2019) and consider local features of vegetation and soil types (Guo et al., 2003; Liu et al., 2012; Shi et al., 2013; Shallner et al., 2020).

4.3 Social managements

The conception, proposal and implementation of MIGH policy need an executive committee to jointly organize relevant departments of local authorities, who will switch their roles from command to service. One of the main requirements of implementing this new policy is a combination of technical support and social management. Technical supports include establishment of grassland quality assessment indices and training programs including grassland quality evaluation, adaptive management, livestock production, and market participation. Government should provide or purchase training programs to technicians and herders. For social management system, what local authorities need to do is to use above-mentioned technologies to assist herdsmen assess and restore grassland health rather than force them to reduce stocking rate. They should firstly formulate regional and local standard methods, and organize grassland health assessment by entrusted third parties, for instance, grassland health examination companies and supervision companies. The current status of herders' pastures will be annually examined according to this system. Every 3-5 years, the parameters are compared with the health parameters of the last check and the change trend of grassland health is measured. If the health status is maintained for non-degraded grasslands or improved for degraded grasslands, the herdsmen will receive an additional award from the government, otherwise will be charged with a penalty. In addition, building up market information platform to assist livestock purchase and forage on-sale is also an important and essential component of the system. In order to improve the management skill of herdsmen and achieve the best practice of grassland management, the implementation of this policy should take account of the needs of different objects. For individual households, a technician may serve several families, and experienced herdsmen could be subsidized to play the role as pacesetters. For cooperative management pattern or company, besides of centralized training, financial support shall be provided when necessary to guide to scale operation of grassland and livestock production.

4.4 Advantages

Returning the right of autonomous management to herders is expected to motivate them to actively adjust their livestock number and structure through considering grassland status, climate, prices of forage and animal products, so as to maintain or improve their livelihoods. The reward and punishment policy can enhance herdsmen's satisfaction to MIGH policy in comparison to the mandatory control policy. In addition, voluntary organization of herdsmen is more conducive to grassland management than under government forces. It is well known that rotational grazing facilitates sustainable utilization of grassland (Qin et al., 2019). However, it requires larger area than contractual grassland of a single family in many cases. In MIGH policy, grassland transfer and multi-household management of grasslands is likely stimulated to enlarge the pastoral area and improve production efficiency, herders' income, and grassland health (Cao et al., 2009; Wei and Zhao, 2017; Cui and Wu, 2018). For the same reasons, herders will be more willing to take measures (such as natural grassland improvement techniques, establishment of artificial grassland, rest-grazing in the regreen-up period, and animal feeding and fattening techniques) that facilitate grassland sustainability (Li et al., 2017).
The pasture health status is easier to quantify through advanced technologies than livestock number, which is difficult to strictly monitor in the Chinese acquaintance society (Wang, 2005; Sun et al., 2018; Cao et al., 2019; Hou et al., 2019). And the policy uses constructed indicators to assess grassland health more comprehensively and professionally, resolving the understaffed problems in livestock number survey. Moreover, the measurement of various indexes can construct a more comprehensive grassland information file, which is helpful to grasp the seasonal and inter-annual changes of grassland. Meanwhile, the local authorities will have the motivation and capacity to boost professional training of government staff, herdsmen training of grassland management and screening of best practices. With the implementation of this policy, it will be more effective to achieve grassland sustainability (Fig. 1).

5 Conclusions

Since the implementation of FLB, there has been much debate over the effectiveness of the policy with restricted impacts on ecology and economy benefits demonstrated through data. FLB interfered with the herders' autonomous use of contracted grasslands. Defects in its theory and methodology, as along with the influence of external factors, jointly led to the failure to achieve expected results. Our study found that traditional grazing management should be transformed into ecosystem management, and policy makers shall focus on the quality of grassland rather than controlling livestock numbers. We proposed an alternative MIGH policy, suggesting to return the grassland use right of herdsmen and therefore motivate their productivity. The crucial step of MIGH policy is to establish index system to monitor grassland health, setting up both reward and punishment systems to motivate herdsman to manage their grassland autonomously. The guideline of both technology supports and social managements was provided in this study. Future research needs to develop official standards of ecosystem health as well as verification of feasibility to better implement this improved policy.
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