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Agricultural Non-Point Source Pollution in China: Causes and Mitigation Measures


Non-point source (NPS) pollution has been increasingly serious in China since the 1990s. The increases of agricultural NPS pollution in China is evaluated for the period 2000−2008 by surveying the literature on water and soil pollution from fertilizers and pesticides, and assessing the surplus nitrogen balance within provinces. The main causes for NPS pollution were excessive inputs of nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides, which were partly the result of the inadequate agricultural extension services and the rapid expansion of intensive livestock production with little of waste management. The annual application of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides in China increased by 50.7 and 119.7%, respectively, during 1991−2008. The mitigation measures to reduce NPS pollution include: correct distortion in fertilizer prices; improve incentives for the recycling of organic manure; provide farmers with better information on the sound use of agro-chemicals; and tighten the regulations and national standards on organic waste disposal and pesticides use.

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  1. There are five grades in the national environmental quality standards for surface water (MEP 2002). There are 24 items to evaluate the water quality, such as pH, COD, BOD, N, P, heavy metal, petroleum, Faecal Coliform Bacteria, etc. From Grades I to IV, the threshold value for total N is 0.2, 0.5, 1.0, 1.5 and 2.0 mg L−1, respectively. The standards also set limits for the content of different pesticide in surface water with the highest value of 0.08 mg L−1 for dimethoate.

  2. Conventional treatment for water includes physical and biological treatments. The solid pollutants are removed first by sand sedimentation; then the colloidal and dissolved organic pollutants (BOD, COD) are removed by biological treatment including the biological filter biofilm, biological dial, bio-contact oxidation and fluidized bed. Advanced treatment is to remove the refractory organic matter, nitrogen and phosphorus by biological nutrient removal, coagulation precipitation, sand filtration, activated carbon adsorption, ion exchange and electrodialysis method.

  3. ND = Not detected at or above the method detection limit.

  4. The census includes 1 963 624 discharge sources from medium to large intensive units and do not include discharges from small producers.

  5. Insecticides mainly include parathion, parathion_methyl, trichlorfon, dichlorvos, dimethoate, omethoate, ethamidophos, isocarbophos, carbamate, pyrethroid, disosultap and chlordimeform. Fungicides mainly include copper sulphate, carbendazim, benodanil, kitazin (EBP), iprobenfos (Kitazin P), zineb, tricyclazole and jiangangmycin. Herbicides mainly include nitrofen, butachlor, 2,4-d butylate, chlortoluron, MCPA, glyphosate, atrazine, prometryn and trifluralin.

  6. The Ministry of Agriculture implemented the subsidy programme to enhance soil organic matter in 287 counties of 21 provinces (municipalities) in 2009, covering an area of 1.03 million ha. The state give 300 CNY (Chinese Yuan) ha−1 (1 USD is equal to about 6.4 CNY) subsidy to the farmers for application of 30 kg ha−1 rice straw decomposition agent in the South region and for application of 1500 kg ha−1 commercial organic fertilizer in the northern region.

  7. In China, there was 23.27 million ha of farmland certified to produce innoxious food (green food) with the rational use of synthetic fertilizers and organic manure in 2006, accounting for 19.1% of the total arable land (121.7 million ha). There was only 3.3 million ha of farmland certified to produce organic food without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

  8. Taihu Lake Water Pollution Prevention Regulations of Jiangsu Province was implemented in 2008. The most closely protected areas include the body of Taihu Lake; a 5-km wide band of land around the lake; and 1 km of land bordering the river for 10 km upstream of the lake. In this area, the construction of new centralized livestock and poultry farms is prohibited.

  9. Ministry of Agriculture of the People’s Republic of China, 2000. Pesticide application guideline for green food production, NY/T 393-2000.


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Financial support was provided by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (40871123), the Chinese Academy of Sciences (KZCX2-YW-407, KSCX2-YW-N-038), the Beijing and Vancouver Secretariats of the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED) and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).

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Correspondence to Zhaoliang Zhu.

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Sun, B., Zhang, L., Yang, L. et al. Agricultural Non-Point Source Pollution in China: Causes and Mitigation Measures. AMBIO 41, 370–379 (2012).

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