News Release

China's 'livestock revolution' demands 'new transition'

The phenomenal growth in livestock farming in China, making it the world's largest producer in the early 1990s, had profound consequences for the planet that its scientists are now addressing.

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Rothamsted Research

Demand for animal protein and increasing wealth fuelled a tripling in the domestic production of livestock in China between 1980 and 2010, and the rise, despite some improvements in efficiencies at the farm level, had significant impacts on environmental sustainability, nationally and globally.

With this rise set to continue, an international team of researchers has now devised a blueprint to increase production efficiency and environmental performance through a "new transition" backed by an array of stakeholders. Their findings are published this week in Science Advances.

"China's livestock transition is massive, in terms of its scale and speed," says Zhaohai Bai, an Associate Professor at the Center for Agricultural Resources Research in the Institute of Genetic and Developmental Biology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and the team's lead author.

Bai notes how the "Livestock Revolution" has been compared with the better known "Green Revolution" in cereals production, with the market value of the global increases in meat and milk consumption between 1970 and 1990 being twice that of wheat, rice and corn.

In China, the average meat, milk and egg consumption per capita increased by 3.9, 10 and 6.9 times from 1980 to 2010, more than anywhere else in the world. The livestock population grew from 142 to 441 million animals over the period, lifting the sector's economic value almost 60-fold, and China became the world's biggest livestock producer, ahead of the US and Europe.

At the farm level, the proportion of more nutrient efficient monogastric animals (pigs and poultry rather than ruminant animals, cattle and sheep) rose from 62% to 74%, and the number of landless (housed) industrial systems, which reduce the impact of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (at a product intensity level, or GHG emissions per unit of product) but limit sustainable production, rose 70-fold.

"However, the costs of livestock transition are also large," says Lin Ma, the paper's corresponding author, also at the CAS institute. "Animal feed imports have increased 49 times, total ammonia and GHG emissions to the atmosphere doubled, and nitrogen losses to watercourses tripled," he adds.

Weak environmental standards, deregulation policies and subsidies, as high as Yuan 10 billion (£1 billion) a year since 2007, are blamed. "This new transition must be induced by government, processing industry, consumers and retailers," stresses Ma.

The team, which also includes scientists from Rothamsted Research and University of Bristol in the UK, IIASA in Austria, Wageningen University in the Netherlands, as well as Agricultural University of Hebei and China Agriculture University, has explored two contrasting scenarios to 2050: a business-as-usual model and the new transition supported by stakeholders.

Without change, there will be even greater increases in emissions of GHGs and ammonia, and in losses of nitrogen to watercourses. With change, GHG emissions can be cut by almost half and nitrogen losses by nearly two thirds.

"China's livestock transition has significant global impact and there is critical need to develop pathways for more sustainable livestock production as we face growing pressure on resources and environmental consequences of global agriculture," says Michael Lee, Head of Rothamsted's North Wyke site and one of the paper's authors.

"Our group of international experts has mapped trajectories to help develop pathways to achieve a new transition targeted to increase production efficiency and environmental performance at a system level with coupling of crop-livestock production," adds Lee, who is also Professor of Sustainable Livestock Systems at Bristol Veterinary School.

This latest research from the CAS-led team follows the academy's study of the measures needed to cope with China's anticipated demand for three times as much milk by 2050 as it produced in 2010, without increasing GHG emissions and nitrogen pollution. The study was published in February in Global Change Biology.




China's livestock transition: Driving forces, impacts, and consequences
Bai et al, 2018, Science Advances Vol 4, no 7, eaar8534 (DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aar8534)

Rothamsted Research contacts:

Michael Lee, Head of Sustainable Agriculture Sciences
North Wyke Farm Platform
Tel: +44 (0) 1837 883 578

Susan Watts, Head of Communications
Tel: +44 (0) 1582 938 109
Mob: +44 (0) 7964 832 719

About Rothamsted Research

Rothamsted Research is the oldest agricultural research institute in the world. We work from gene to field with a proud history of ground-breaking discoveries. Our founders, in 1843, were the pioneers of modern agriculture, and we are known for our imaginative science and our collaborative influence on fresh thinking and farming practices. Through independent science and innovation, we make significant contributions to improving agri-food systems in the UK and internationally. In terms of its economic contribution, the cumulative impact of our work in the UK exceeds £3000 million a year (Rothamsted Research and the Value of Excellence, by Séan Rickard, 2015). Our strength lies in our systems approach, which combines science and strategic research, interdisciplinary teams and partnerships. Rothamsted is also home to three unique resources. These National Capabilities are open to researchers from all over the world: The Long-Term Experiments, Rothamsted Insect Survey and the North Wyke Farm Platform. We are strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), with additional support from other national and international funding streams, and from industry.

For more information, visit; Twitter @Rothamsted


BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond. Funded by Government, BBSRC invested over £469M in world-class bioscience in 2016-17. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

About Bristol Veterinary School, University of Bristol

The Bristol Veterinary School's research is focused in the areas of Animal Welfare and Behaviour, Comparative and Clinical Research, and Infection and Immunity (including Veterinary Public Health), and the research in all three groups is underpinned by the themes of Global Food Security and Antimicrobial Resistance. Research ranges from fundamental to applied and is relevant to over-arching issues such as Food Security and One Health, concepts that the School's research embraces through collaborations with scientists from other schools within the Faculties of Health Sciences and Science and other regional institutes and organisations. The University of Bristol is at the cutting edge of global research and has made innovations in areas ranging from cot death prevention to nanotechnology. Founded in 1876, the University is one of the most successful and popular in the UK and was ranked within the top 50 universities in the world in the QS World University Rankings 2018.

For more information, visit

Chinese Academy of Sciences contacts:

Lin Ma, Professor
Center for Agricultural Resources Research
Institute of Genetic and Developmental Biology
Chinese Academy of Sciences

Zhaohai Bai, Associate Professor
Center for Agricultural Resources Research
Institute of Genetic and Developmental Biology
Chinese Academy of Sciences

About the Chinese Academy of Sciences

The Chinese Academy of Sciences is the linchpin of China's drive to explore and harness high technology and the natural sciences for the benefit of China and the world. Comprising a comprehensive research and development network, a merit-based learned society and a system of higher education, CAS brings together scientists and engineers from China and around the world to address both theoretical and applied problems using world-class scientific and management approaches. At the end of 2012, CAS consisted of 124 institutions, including 104 research institutes, five universities and supporting organisations, 12 management organisations, and three other units For more information, visit

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