China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
Chinese agriculture in the 1970s and 1980s was the scene of a dramatic re-arrangement of human-mineral relations. Across a wide variety of agronomic niches, steeply rising applications of chemical fertilizers boosted the yields of favored plants. The factory-made minerals improved food supplies for many who had long suffered scarcity, but analyses that emphasize property rights reform generally fail to take the critical role of chemical fertilizers into full account. Consequently, larger yields are more often attributed to de-collectivization in the 1980s, a formulation that ignores the central role that newly abundant mineral inputs played in the expansion of China’s agricultural production. Moreover, these mineral injections are not cost-free: excessive reliance on chemical fertilizers (in a country that applies 25% of the world’s annual consumption of fertilizers to less than eight percent of the world’s farmland) leads to numerous forms of environmental degradation. In support of efforts to shrink China’s outsized agricultural rootprint, the paper aims at a fuller accounting of the ecological costs and political benefits associated with a mineral-powered upgrade of crop production.