Carbon footprint of maize production in tropical/subtropical region: a case study of Southwest China

Abstract

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.

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Availability of data and materials

All data generated or analysed during this study are included in this published article and its supplementary information files.

Funding

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).

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Z.Y.: investigation, methodology, data curation, writing—original draft, writing—review and editing.

W.Z., X.W. and M.L.: review and editing.

D.C. and Z.Z.: writing—review and editing, supervision.

X.C.: conceptualisation, writing—review and editing, supervision, funding acquisition.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Xinping Chen.

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Highlights

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

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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

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Keywords

  • Tropical region
  • Subtropical region
  • Life cycle assessment
  • Greenhouse gas emission
  • Carbon footprint
  • Maize