Assessing environmental impacts of Chinese livestock policies : an agent-based approach

C. Zheng

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


Over the recent decades, environmental management has been promoted in China, and has gradually transferred from urban areas and industrial sectors to rural areas and the agricultural sector. Livestock production is extremely important for China, for increasing rural household income and guaranteeing long-term food security. At the same time of that the Chinese livestock sector amazed the world by its rapid development and intensification, it was criticized for its significant environmental damages. Policy assessment, which has played an important role in improving environmental management in many countries, offers an opportunity to improve livestock environmental management and to mitigate pollutant emissions. However, no sophisticated or commonly accepted methodology has been developed and implemented for policy assessment yet. Therefore, the central objectives of this research are to explore an adequate methodology for comprehensive assessment of sectoral policies for Chinese livestock production, and to design improved environmental management for the livestock sector. This done through empirically studying factors that change farmers’ practices, comparing the effectiveness of various environmental policies and examining the environmental consequences of different sectoral development paths.

Agent-Based Modeling (ABM) is used as a core methodology for this research. On the basis of some social theories, a specific environmental ABM, named Agent-Based Nutrient Emission Model (ANEM), is developed and operationalized for Chinese livestock sector in chapter 2. Through describing individual decision-making of heterogeneous farmers at different scale regarding manure management practices, ANEM sufficiently represents the complex, nonlinear and interdependent responses of farmers to policies. These features represented by ANEM significantly affect policy outcomes and associated environmental consequences, but were largely ignored in policy making, implementation and evaluation in China up until today. A four-year (2005-2008) simulation of pig production and the associated nutrient emissions in the two case study areas of this research by ANEM, proves ANEM’s ability to adequately capture real-world dynamics.

Manure management practices influence the flows of animal waste, and thus determine on-farm nutrient emissions. To understand the current status of manure management practices in China, an investigation is conducted in pig and poultry production—two major components of Chinese livestock production—by means of questionnaire surveys in two case areas. The hypothesis that medium-scale farmers have the least capability for environmentally sound technology uptake is refuted in the investigation. The comparison of the two cases proves that less developed areas are not always laggards in adopting environmentally advanced technologies.

Furthermore, in chapter 3 the concept of ecological rationality is employed to explain differences of farming practices and investigate which governance arrangements are most successful in ecologizing Chinese livestock production. The Chinese government has integrated environmental concerns into a number of policies, not only through regulatory instruments but also by financial incentives, stimulation and information dissemination to farmers. These policies significantly motivate farmers to adopt environmental sound technologies. The vital role of governments in bringing about improved environmental management is confirmed, while the role of individual famers and networks of farmers are not major contribution to introduce ecological rationalities in farming practices.

To enhance the effectiveness of environmental policies in livestock production, policy-makers face an essential question: Which environmental policy instruments aimed at which group of farmers improve best the effectiveness of pollution mitigation? Using ANEM as a key tool, chapter 4 examines and compares the environmental consequence of five environmental policy instruments, covering regulatory standards, market-based instruments and information instruments. A stricter technology standard mitigates nutrient emissions to the largest extent. However, it strongly constrains production development, making it less favorable by Chinese governmental authorities. Biogas subsides achieve emission reduction in household- and medium-scale farms, but not in large-scale farms. Charging pollution fee and setting up a manure market seem to be little effective for nutrient mitigation. Information provisioning significantly promotes technology improvement across all scales, with slight negative impacts on production development. Governing medium-scale farms is likely to be most consequential for environmental improvement in rural China, since they better perform in adopting environmental technologies and in avoiding reduction of animal production.

Promoting intensification is a major strategy for the Chinese livestock sector. However, there have been few studies that quantitatively explored the environmental consequence of such a structural transformation. Based on scenario simulation and using ANEM, the strategy of intensifying livestock production has been assessed from the perspective of environmental management in chapter 5. The nutrient emissions of three feasible development scenarios, which involve different growth of animal output and intensification processes, are simulated in regional livestock production. The simulation results prove that intensification can play a positive role in nutrient mitigation. However, intensification fails to achieve absolute nutrient mitigation when it copes with an ambitious growth of production. Therefore, Chinese livestock production can insist on its intensification process, but needs an accelerated environmental reform to guarantee minimal environmental damages.

In sum, this research is the first in-depth assessment of the environmental impacts of Chinese livestock policies. ABM is used as an innovative approach to describe the dynamics of livestock sector based on individual but interdependent farmer behaviors, in order to capture emergency on system level. A number of policy recommendations could be formulated based on this research. Generally, Chinese livestock production can continue rapid growth and intensification, as long as it parallels stringent “ecological reform”. To advance ecological modernization in Chinese livestock production, national policies should be tailored to the specific characteristics of this sector. In addition, this research concludes that an ABM based methodology is appropriate for policy assessment, a conclusion that also holds beyond Chinese livestock production towards other sectors and even other transitional societies.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Mol, Arthur, Promotor
  • Liu, Y., Promotor, External person
  • Bluemling, Bettina, Promotor
Award date17 Dec 2013
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789461738172
Publication statusPublished - 2013


  • environmental policy
  • livestock
  • china
  • environmental management
  • environmental sociology
  • social sciences

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