Maize production is critical in tropical/subtropical regions, especially in developing countries where maize is a staple food. However, its environmental costs remain unclear. Southwest China is a tropical/subtropical region with large-scale maize production in each of its sub-regions. In the present study, we used Southwest China as a case study to evaluate the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and carbon footprint (CF) of maize production during 1996–2015 using life cycle assessment to identify the driving factors behind the GHG emissions and CF and to propose potential mitigation strategies. The mean GHG emissions of maize production per year during 1996–2015 was 4132 kg CO2-eq·ha−1, and the CF during this period was 961 kg CO2-eq·Mg−1. The GHG emissions and CF in Southwest China were 2–4 times higher than those of other major maize-producing regions worldwide. The GHG emissions and CF were both significantly correlated with the N surplus. The N surplus was also linearly correlated with annual precipitation, annual temperature and growing degree days, but not significantly related with soil pH. Scenario testing showed that the CF of maize production in Southwest China could be reduced by 41%, i.e. to 437 kg CO2-eq·Mg−1, by farmers adopting a comprehensive strategy including recommended fertiliser application rates, innovative fertilisers, and crop management to decrease GHG emissions and achieve the yield potential in the region. Integrated soil and crop management is essential for sustainable maize production in tropical/subtropical regions with complex and changeable ecological conditions, especially in developing countries where maize is a staple food.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Akiyama H, Yan X, Yagi K (2010) Evaluation of effectiveness of enhanced efficiency fertilizers as mitigation options for N2O and NO emissions from agricultural soils: meta-analysis. Glob Chang Biol 16:1837–1846
Alam M, Seetharam K, Zaidi P, Dinesh A, Vinayan M, Nath U (2017) Dissecting heat stress tolerance in tropical maize (Zea mays L). Field Crop Res 204:110–119
Barros I, Pacheco E, Martins C, Carvalho H (2015) Economic feasibility, fossil fuel requirements, and GHG emissions in maize production in the “Agreste” part of Sergipe State—Brazil: effect of tillage systems. Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária. Embrapa Tabuleiros Costeiros
Cairns J, Sonder K, Zaidi P, Verhulst N, Mahuku G, Babu R, Rashid Z (2012) Maize production in a changing climate: impacts, adaptation, and mitigation strategies. Acad Press 114:1–58
Carlson KM, Gerber JS, Mueller ND, Herrero M, Macdonald GK, Brauman KA, Havlik P, O’Connell CS, Johnson JA, Saatchi S, West PC (2016) Greenhouse gas emissions intensity of global croplands. Nat Clim Chang 7:63–68
Chen X, Cui Z, Fan M, Vitousek P, Zhao M, Ma W, Wang Z, Zhang W, Yan X, Yang J, Deng X, Gao Q, Zhang Q, Guo S, Ren J, Li S, Ye Y, Wang Z, Huang J, Tang Q, Sun Y, Peng X, Zhang J, He M, Zhu Y, Xue J, Wang G, Wu L, An N, Wu L, Ma L, Zhang W, Zhang F (2014) Producing more grain with lower environmental costs. Nature 514:486–489
CMDC (2019) The China Meteorological Data Service Center http://data.cma.cn/ data/detail/dataCode/A.0012.0001.html
Cui Z, Zhang H, Chen X, Zhang C, Ma W, Huang C, Zhang W, Mi G, Miao Y, Li X, Gao G, Yang J, Wang Z, Ye Y, Guo S, Lu J, Huang J, Lv S, Sun Y, Liu Y, Peng X, Ren J, Li S, Ding X, Shi X, Zhang Q, Yang Z, Tang L, Wei C, Jia L, Zhang J, He M, Tong Y, Zhong X, Liu Z, Cao N, Kou C, Yin H, Yin Y, Jiao X, Zhang Q, Fan M, Jiang R, Zhang F, Dou Z (2018) Pursuing sustainable productivity with millions of smallholder farmers. Nature 555:363–378
Daniel BL, Oana MD, Festus VB et al (2019) Do agricultural activities induce carbon emissions? The BRICS experience. Environ Sci Pollut Res 26:25218–25234
Dendooven L, Gutiérrez-Oliva V, Patiño-Zúñiga L, Ramírez-Villanueva D, Verhulst N, Luna-Guido M, Govaerts B (2012) Greenhouse gas emissions under conservation agriculture compared to traditional cultivation of maize in the central highlands of Mexico. Sci Total Environ 431:237–244
FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) (2018) FAOSTAT Database-Resources. In: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. FAO Statistical Yearbook 2017: World Food and Agriculture, Rome
Felten D, Fröba N, Fries J, Emmerling C (2013) Energy balances and greenhouse gas-mitigation potentials of bioenergy cropping systems (Miscanthus, rapeseed, and maize) based on farming conditions in Western Germany. Renew Energy 55:160–174
Forster P, Ramaswamy V, Artaxo P, Berntsen T, Betts R, Fahey DW, Nganga J (2007) Climate change: the physical science basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Water Air Soil Pollut 181:130–234
Forte A, Fagnano M, Fierro A (2017) Potential role of compost and green manure amendment to mitigate soil GHGs emissions in Mediterranean drip irrigated maize production systems. J Environ Manag 192:68–78
Gerpacio R, Pingali P (2007) Tropical and subtropical maize in Asia: production systems, constraints, and research priorities. CIMMYT, Mexico, pp 1–106
Govaerts B, Sayre KD, Deckers J (2005) Stable high yields with zero tillage and permanent bed planting? Field Crop Res 94:33–42
Grace P, Robertson G, Millar N, Colunga-Garcia M, Basso B, Gage S, Hoben J (2011) The contribution of maize cropping in the Midwest USA to global warming: a regional estimate. Agric Syst 104:292–296
Grassini P, Cassman K (2012) High-yield maize with large net energy yield and small global warming intensity. P Natl Acad Sci USA 109:1074–1079
Han JP, Shi LS, Wang YK, Chen ZW, Wu LH (2018) The regulatory role of endogenous iron on greenhouse gas emissions under intensive nitrogen fertilization in subtropical soils of China. Environ Sci Pollut Res 25:14511–14520
Harris T, Consulting T (2014) Africa agriculture status report 2014: climate change and smallholder agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa. Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). 1-238
Hou P, Gao Q, Xie R, Li S, Meng Q (2012) Grain yields in relation to N requirement: optimizing nitrogen management for spring maize grown in China. Field Crop Res 129:1–6
Huang J, Chen Y, Pan J, Liu W, Yang G, Xiao X, Zhang H, Tang W, Tang M, Zhou L (2019) Carbon footprint of different agricultural systems in China estimated by different evaluation metrics. J Clean Prod 225:939–948
Ignacio M, Inaki G, Benjamin I, Thierry L, Amber P, Cornelis V, Kimberly A, Elizabeth M (2020) Diversity buffers winegrowing regions from climate change losses. P Natl Acad Sci USA 117:2864–2869
IPCC (2014) Climate change 2014: impacts, adaptation and vulnerability: regional aspects. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
Jayasundara S, Wagner-Riddle C, Dias G, Kariyapperuma K (2014) Energy and greenhouse gas intensity of corn (Zea mays L) production in Ontario: a regional assessment. Can J Soil Sci 94:77–95
Ju XT, Gu BJ, Wu YY, Galloway JN (2016) Reducing China’s fertilizer use by increasing farm size. Glob Environ Chang 41:26–32
Li T, Zhang W, Yin J, Chadwick D, Norse D, Lu Y, Liu X, Chen X, Zhang F, Powlson D, Dou Z (2017) Enhanced-efficiency fertilizers are not a panacea for resolving the nitrogen problem. Glob Chang Biol 24:511–521
Liu B, Chen X, Meng Q, Yang H, Wart J (2017) Estimating maize yield potential and yield gap with agro-climatic zones in China—distinguish irrigated and rainfed conditions. Agric For Meteorol 239:108–117
NBSC (2018) National Bureau of Statistics. China Agricultural Statistical Yearbook. China Statistics Press, Beijing
NDRCC (2019) National Development and Reform Commission of China. China agricultural products cost–benefit yearbooks (2012–2016). China Statistic Press, 2013-2017, Beijing
OECD (2014) Environmental indicators for agriculture: methods and results. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Paris Available: www.oecd.org/greengrowth/sustainable-agriculture/1916629.pdf
Peng S, Li HJ, Xu QQ, Lin XG, Wang YM (2019) Addition of zeolite and superphosphate to windrow composting of chicken manure improves fertilizer efficiency and reduces greenhouse gas emission. Environ Sci Pollut Res 26:336845–336856
Prasanna B (2011) Maize in the developing world: trends, challenges, and opportunities. Proc Int Maize Conf. 26-38
Ranum P, Peña-Rosas J, Garcia-Casal M (2014) Global maize production, utilization, and consumption. Ann. Ny Acad Sci 1312:105–112
Sarkar D, Kar SK, Chattopadhyay A, Rakshit A, Tripathi VK, Dubey PK, Abhilash PC (2020) Low input sustainable agriculture: a viable climate-smart option for boosting food production in a warming world. Ecol Indic 115:106412
She W, Wu Y, Huang H, Chen Z, Cui G, Zheng H, Guan C (2017) Integrative analysis of carbon structure and carbon sink function for major crop production in China’s typical agriculture regions. J Clean Prod 162:702–708
Shi X, Lu C, Xu X (2011) Variability and trends of high temperature, high humidity, and sultry weather in the warm season in China during the period 1961–2004. J Appl Meteorol Climatol 50:127–143
Shiferaw B, Prasanna B, Hellin J, Bänziger M (2011) Crops that feed the world 6. Past successes and future challenges to the role played by maize in global food security. Food Secur 3:307–327
Tesfaye K, Gbegbelegbe S, Cairns J, Shiferaw B, Prasanna B, Sonder K, Boote K, Makumbi D, Robertson R (2015) Maize systems under climate change in sub-Saharan Africa: potential impacts on production and food security. Int J Clim Chang Str 7:247–271
Vander H, Tzilivakis J, Lewis K, Basset-Mens C (2007) Environmental impacts of farm scenarios according to five assessment methods. Agric Ecosyst Environ 118:327–338
Vlachos C, Mariolis N, Skaracis G (2014) A comparison of sweet sorghum and maize as first-generation bioethanol feedstocks in Greece. J Agric Sci 153:853–861
Wang X, Chen Y, Sui P, Yan P, Yang X, Gao W (2017) Preliminary analysis on economic and environmental consequences of grain production on different farm sizes in North China Plain. Agricultural Systems 153:181–189
Wu L, Chen X, Cui Z, Zhang W, Zhang F (2014) Establishing a regional nitrogen management approach to mitigate greenhouse gas emission intensity from intensive smallholder maize production. PLoS One 9:98481
Wu YY, Xi XC, Tang X, Luo DM, Gu BJ, Lam SK, Vitousek PM, Chen DL (2018) Policy distortions, farm size, and the overuse of agricultural chemicals in China. P Natl Acad Sci USA 20180664515:1–6
Yan M, Cheng K, Luo T, Yan Y, Pan G, Rees R (2015) Carbon footprint of grain crop production in China–based on farm survey data. J Clean Prod 104:130–138
Yin Y, Deng H, Wu S (2017) A new method for generating the thermal growing degree-days and season in China during the last century. Int J Climatol 37:1131–1140
Zhang W, Dou Z, He P, Ju X, Powlson D, Chadwick D, David N, Yue L, Ying Z, Wu L, Chen X, Cassman K, Zhang F (2013) New technologies reduce greenhouse gas emissions from nitrogenous fertilizer in China. P Natl Acad Sci USA 110:8375–8380
Zhang W, He X, Zhang Z, Gong S, Zhang Q, Zhang W, Liu D, Zou C, Chen X (2018) Carbon footprint assessment for irrigated and rainfed maize (Zea mays L) production on the Loess Plateau of China. Biosyst Eng 167:75–86
Zhang W, Liang Z, He X, Wang X, Shi X, Zou C, Chen X (2019a) The effects of controlled release urea on maize productivity and reactive nitrogen losses: a meta-analysis. Environ Pollut 246:559–565
Zhang XX, Sun HF, Wang JL, Zhang JN, Liu GL, Zhou S (2019b) Effect of moisture gradient on rice yields and greenhouse gas emissions from rice paddies. Environ Sci Pollut Res 26:33416–33426
Zhu Y, Waqas M, Li Y, Zou X, Jiang D, Qin X, Gao Q, Wan Y, Wilkes A, Hasbagan G (2018) Large-scale farming operations are win-win for grain production, soil carbon storage and mitigation of greenhouse gases. J Clean Prod 172:2143–2152
Availability of data and materials
All data generated or analysed during this study are included in this published article and its supplementary information files.
The authors are grateful to the National Key R&D Program of China (No. 2018YFD0200701). This work was also funded by the National Maize Production System in China (CARS-02-15). We sincerely thank the Changjiang Scholarship of the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China. This work was also supported by the State Cultivation Base of Eco-agriculture for Southwest Mountainous Land (Southwest University).
Consent to participate
Consent to publish
The authors declare that they have competing interests.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
1. High greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint of maize production were found in tropical/subtropical China.
2. High nitrogen surplus caused by high precipitation and high temperature and shorter growing degree days contribute to this high C footprint.
3. Integrated fertilizer and crop management has great potential to cut carbon footprint.
Responsible Editor: Philippe Garrigues
About this article
Cite this article
Yao, Z., Zhang, W., Wang, X. et al. Carbon footprint of maize production in tropical/subtropical region: a case study of Southwest China. Environ Sci Pollut Res (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11356-021-12663-w
- Tropical region
- Subtropical region
- Life cycle assessment
- Greenhouse gas emission
- Carbon footprint