Soil-loss, food insecurity, population pressure and low income of the rural population are interrelated problems in the Loess Plateau of northern China, and result in a spiral of unsustainability. This paper examines Ansai County as a case study to explore strategic land use options that may meet well-defined goals of regional development, using a systems approach that integrated the fragmented and empirical information on the biophysical, agronomic and socio-economic conditions. We used production ecological principles, simulation modeling and multiple goal linear programming as integrative tools. Four scenarios were explored, representing major directions of agricultural development in the region and views of national and local stakeholders, farmers and environmentalists. The results indicate that soil conservation, food self-sufficiency and income for the rural population can be substantially improved by efficient resource use and appropriate inputs. In the long-term, terracing and use of crop rotations with alfalfa may be the best options for soil conservation. The large rural population and the lack of off-farm employment opportunities could be the most important factors affecting rural development in Ansai. This study contributes to the understanding of regional problems and agricultural development potentials, and shows' agro-technical possibilities for alleviating the unsustainability problems in this fragile and poorly endowed region. To promote actual development towards the identified options, on-farm innovation and appropriate policy measures are needed. The explored land use options enable a much more targeted innovation and development of policies. (C) 2003 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.