Intensification of phosphorus cycling in China since the 1600s

Xin Liu, Hu Sheng, Songyan Jiang, Zengwei Yuan, Chaosheng Zhang, James J. Elser

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

216 Scopus citations


Phosphorus (P) is an essential nutrient for living systems with emerging sustainability challenges related to supply uncertainty and aquatic eutrophication. However, its long-term temporal dynamics and subsequent effects on freshwater ecosystems are still unclear. Here, we quantify the P pathways across China over the past four centuries with a life cycle process-balanced model and evaluate the concomitant potential for eutrophication with a spatial resolution of 5 arc-minutes in 2012. We find that P cycling in China has been artificially intensified during this period to sustain the increasing population and its demand for animal protein-based diets, with continuous accumulations in inland waters and lands. In the past decade, China's international trade of P involves net exports of P chemicals and net imports of downstream crops, specifically soybeans from the United States, Brazil, and Argentina. The contribution of crop products to per capita food P demand, namely, the P directly consumed by humans, declined from over 98% before the 1950s to 76%in 2012, even though there was little change in per capita food P demand. Anthropogenic P losses to freshwater and their eutrophication potential clustered in wealthy coastal regions with dense populations. We estimate that Chinese P reserve depletion could be postponed for over 20 y by more efficient life cycle P management. Our results highlight the importance of closing the P cycle to achieve the cobenefits of P resource conservation and eutrophication mitigation in the world's most rapidly developing economy.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2609-2614
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number10
StatePublished - Mar 8 2016


  • Eutrophication
  • Food production
  • Industrial ecology
  • Phosphorus cycling
  • Sustainability


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