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Crop grey water footprints in China: The impact of pesticides on water pollution

01 May 2024

Authors: J. Yi, P.W. Gerbens-Leenes, M.M. Aldaya

Journal: Science of The Total Environment


Agricultural water pollution is a significant challenge in China, a rapidly growing economy with a large agricultural sector. The grey water footprint (WF) is a tool for evaluating freshwater pollution. It expresses pollution in volumetric units identifying the pollutant that theoretically needs most water to be diluted to accepted water quality standards. Previous agricultural grey WF studies focused on nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P), some studies included pesticides. This study assesses grey WFs based on N, P and 1513 pesticide combinations for twelve main crops and two crop categories in 31 Chinese provinces. Grey WFs, including the pesticide component, are far larger than estimated before, dominating total agricultural WFs (green, blue, and grey). The total grey WF of Chinese agriculture (4,900 109 m3 year−1) is determined by pesticides, while grey WFs related to N and P are 450 and 1,500 109 m3 year−1, differences of a factor of eleven and three respectively. The provinces Heilongjiang, Inner Mongolia, Hebei, Henan, and Shandong are hotspots contributing 37 % to the total grey WF. A limited number of pesticides used for maize, vegetables, fruits and potato (Mancozeb a fungicide, Acetochlor a herbicide and Cypermethrin an insecticide) dominate total grey WFs, contributing 80 % to the total grey WF. Eliminating the most polluting pesticides per category and redistributing the remaining ones with a similar function but lower grey WFs reduces national water pollution from agriculture by 64 %. Only five crops, i.e. maize, potato, soybean, rice and wheat, and the two crop categories, vegetables and fruits, contribute 94 % to this reduction. Probably grey WFs could reduce even further with a second elimination and redistribution effort. This study is the first national grey WF assessment related to pesticides in agriculture. It offers valuable insights to farmers and policymakers to enhance water quality in China and beyond.

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Last modified:31 May 2024 1.58 p.m.

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