Unlocking the Benefits of Biogas in a Circular Agri-food Economy

A privately owned agro-enterprise in Jiangxi produces biogas from pig manure and sells electricity to the power grid. Photo credit: ADB.

In the People’s Republic of China, biogas plants supply electricity to livestock farms using their wastes and produce organic fertilizer for eco-farming.


An innovative biogas project in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) helped create an environmentally and socially sustainable circular economy for the rural livestock industry. Using an integrated approach, it reduced pollution and contributed to climate mitigation and adaptation while improving the livelihood of farmers and public health in four provinces.

The project produced biogas by using animal waste from livestock farms and supplied electricity to these farms and the grid. Sludge and slurry from the biogas plants were turned into fertilizers for ecological farming (eco-farming).

The most successful case under the project was the implementation of a closed-loop circular economy by a privately owned farm in Jiangxi province. It used its own biogas-generated electricity and sold it to the power grid with feed-in-tariff.

Other countries in the region can learn from the lessons and best practices from this Asian Development Bank-supported project, which can be replicated in all provinces across the PRC.

This case study is adapted from Practical Responses to Real Problems: Eight Poverty Reduction Cases from the Asian Development Bank (Volume 2) and project documents.

Project information

40682-013 : Integrated Biogas Renewable Energy Sector Development Project in the People’s Republic of China

Project snapshot

      • Approval date:16 April 2010
      • Closing date: 1 September 2020
      • Total project cost: $88.7 million
      • Executing agency: Department of Agriculture, Heilongjiang Province; Department of Agriculture, Henan Province; Department of Agriculture, Foreign Office of Jiangxi Province; Department of Agriculture, Shandong Province.
      • Financing: Asian Development Bank; Global Environment Facility.


In the PRC, rising rural energy consumption and environmental degradation have been a cause for concern. From 2000 to 2016, rural areas saw an increase in annual energy consumption per person of 9.81%. Reliance on burning coal, firewood, and straw resulted in serious rural-to-urban transboundary pollution and impeded efforts to mitigate climate change impacts.

Meanwhile, livestock farming and agro-industries were developing rapidly. Small household farms grew into medium-sized and large commercialized farms that supply food to the country’s big cities.

The volume of livestock waste is fast increasing. It was estimated that waste from livestock farms will reach 6.76 billion tons by 2020. However, less than half of commercial farms have waste treatment facilities.


Reducing livestock pollution and promoting an “energy–ecological type” of rural livelihood improvement were among the priorities of the PRC government’s Eleventh Five-Year Plan (2006–2010). In the poor rural areas of Heilongjiang, Henan, Jiangxi, and Shandong provinces, the densities of livestock are almost triple the national average, and the pollution problems from livestock farms and agro-enterprises are severe.

An integrated resource-recycling approach can help improve rural environmental management in these areas and advance the ecological civilization agenda in the PRC.

Because of the high concentration of organic materials in the waste, anaerobic digestion is an effective technology to manage the livestock waste, while generating substantial biogas renewable energy to meet increasing demand.


The Integrated Biogas Renewable Energy Sector Development Project was started in 2010 to improve rural livelihood through innovative methods by converting livestock waste into biogas renewable energy and developing eco-farming services and products to demonstrate the sustainability of a circular economy model.

More than 40% of the subprojects were in both national and provincial poverty counties in Heilongjiang, Henan, Jiangxi, and Shandong.

The project adopted an integrated approach.

  • It helped livestock farmers to reduce nonpoint sources of pollution.
  • It built links with eco-farming for animal waste residual utilization.
  • It generated biogas using livestock waste for electricity.

The project built 65 medium and large-sized biogas plants and six centralized biogas plants, which supplied 80% of the energy requirements of livestock farms and agro-enterprises. It introduced high-temperature flare technology to capture methane gas and minimize emissions from the biogas plants.

A biogas plant manager checks power generation operation. Photo credit: ADB.

Farmers were given guidelines on how to set up, operate, and maintain biogas plants. A performance monitoring system for medium and large-sized biogas plants and a business model for centralized plants were developed. Four provincial technical service centers were established to support the plants, and about 320 technicians were trained.

Sludge, a biogas byproduct, was used to produce fertilizers for eco-farming and reduce the use of harmful chemicals in agriculture.


The project is estimated to reduce 1.72 million tons carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent of greenhouse gases per year by minimizing methane emissions from livestock farming and replacing fossil fuel or firewood. It treated about 4.87 million tons of livestock and agro-processing waste and produced about 126.41 million metric tons of biogas annually, which was used for cooking, heating, and electricity supply.

Biogas is stored in containers and used to generate electricity. Photo credit: ADB.

About 1.15 million tons of organic fertilizer for eco-farming were produced each year to enhance soil quality, improve agricultural production, and boost carbon sequestration.

More than 36,000 farming households, including the women, earned higher income from biogas-related jobs, and the production and sale of organic fertilizers and products. More than 3,000 residents worked during project construction with almost half of them female. More than 800 of 1,450 workers in the operation and maintenance of the biogas plants are female. Rural households also spent less on chemical fertilizers and increased their income by producing better-quality crops and vegetables.

A private enterprise, Wannianxinxing, demonstrated a successful closed-loop circular economy. Through the use of biogas from pig manure, its annual power generation reached about 2.7 million kilowatt-hours (kWh). The enterprise was able to use this electricity and also sell this to the local grid at CNY0.75/kWh (about $0.11/kWh). To cover the enterprise’s electricity consumption, the owner purchased additional electricity from the local grid at CNY0.65/kWh. This ensured stability of power supply for its manufacturing and production process.

Wannianxinxing also converted biogas sludge for eco-farming and sale of organic products.


The use of biogas in rural areas of the PRC can deliver a circular economy model with high value addition to advance ecological well-being and contribute to global efforts in tackling climate change. Agriculture and livestock projects that will use biogas as a source of renewable energy should consider the following lessons:

  • A ministry with a strong commitment and binding political and policy targets should lead the project design and implementation.
  • Stringent technical parameters should be established for anaerobic digestion capacity, biogas power generation capacity (both electricity and natural gas), and grid connection (if applicable).
  • To hedge against external shocks and maintain robust cash flows, the selection of subprojects should focus on enterprises with diversified operations, such as livestock in combination with cold chain, crop or grain processing, or organic fertilizer purification.
  • The selection of subprojects should focus on the southern region of the PRC because of its stronger policy coordination and financial capacity and its warmer climatic conditions. Using lessons from successful implementation in the southern region, select one or two central or northern provinces to follow best practices and adopt the project to the local situation.
  • The special achievement by the Wannianxinxing subproject in Jiangxi Province, the only successful case of on-grid connection and sale of electricity to the grid as a private enterprise, should be thoroughly analyzed and its lessons disseminated as best practices.
Lanlan Lu

Lanlan Lu

Senior Project Officer, East Asia Department, ADB

This blog is reproduced from Development Asia.

ADB Practitioners in the PRC
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ADB Practitioners in the PRC
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Irrigation Project Cultivates Jobs and Incomes in Ningxia, the PRC

ADB's Ningxia project established 180 hectares of vineyards, rehabilitated 823 ha with improved farming practices, and planted 225 ha of shelterbelts. Photo: ADB

Shortages of water, poor agricultural practices, and unsustainable farming held back progress on poverty reduction in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, PRC.

ADB approved the Ningxia Integrated Ecosystem and Agricultural Development Project in December 2012 to expand water-saving irrigation and strengthen the partnership of enterprises with farmer households.

The project had strong development impact in terms of achieving water conservation and boosting rural incomes from improved agriculture production, as well providing jobs, almost half of which were taken up by women, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Early in the 21st century, as much of the rest of the PRC was powering toward poverty eradication, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region (NHAR) continued to suffer persistently high incidences of poverty in rural areas. Shortages of water, poor agricultural practices, and unsustainable farming held back progress.

Recognizing this, the NHAR government from the late 1990s promoted the development of horticultural crops—mainly goji berries, grapes and Chinese dates—to boost agricultural productivity and farmers’ incomes. The Ningxia Agriculture Reclamation Group (NARG), a commercialized state-owned enterprise, pioneered the growing of grapes for wine making. The result was higher value crops and greater employment opportunities for local people.

Since 2010, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has supported NHAR’s campaign to better manage its agriculture. ADB approved a loan of $70 million for the Ningxia Irrigated Agriculture and Water Conservation Demonstration Project in December 2012 to expand water-saving irrigation and strengthen the partnership of enterprises with farmer households.

Sustainable farming practices

The project focused on improving irrigation systems, (vineyards and agriculture farms, grape processing capacity, and institutional and farmer capacity.

“The project was designed to promote sustainable farming practices and improve the agricultural value chain,” says ADB Senior Project Officer (Environment) Niu Zhiming. “The ADB project in Ningxia demonstrated water-saving technologies and climate resilient agricultural practices in modern farms, including irrigation scheduling and fertigation, which is adding fertilizers to the irrigation pipes, optimized cropping management, and high-value crops.”

The project replaced the existing irrigation network with higher efficiency systems and introduced drip irrigation and hose irrigation in the targeted vineyards and Chinese date orchards. It also supported the construction of water storage ponds, small pumps, on-farm water distribution pipe networks, and other facilities. The project exceeded its target by increasing the total irrigated area by 2,694 hectares (ha) while saving about 3.11 million meters in water.

The project established 180 ha of vineyards, rehabilitated 823 ha with improved farming practices, and planted 225 ha of shelterbelts. It also supported associated land leveling, windbreak shelterbelts, improved farming practices (including pest management and balanced fertilizer application, and conservation tillage), and access roads in the project vineyards and orchards.

At completion, the project also built a full grape processing capacity at two farms as planned, both equipped with a quality monitoring system. The processing systems including grape crushing, pressing, and juice storage facilities were put into operation in 2018.

Strengthening institutions

The project strengthened the capacity of the executing and implementing agencies to undertake the project and provided training to farmers on water-saving irrigation and new farming technologies. It also helped to improve monitoring systems for quality control and enhance its marketing.

“Following completion in June 2020, the water-saving irrigation and new farming technologies have been applied extensively in the project area, and the farmers’ capacity to use these technologies has been significantly strengthened,” says PRC Country Director Yolanda Fernandez Lommen. “NARG has adopted a quality monitoring and control system for its vineyards and wineries, and the water users associations are extensively involved in irrigation management.”

More than 8,600 farmers were trained in water and soil conservation, sustainable horticultural management, and plant disease prevention and pesticide management. Some 340 staff were trained from cooperatives and the water users associations were trained in sustainable horticultural management. About 40% of trainees in horticultural management were women.

Female farmers working at the state farm vineyard. Photo: ADB

Achieving gender targets

More generally, the project achieved its 16 gender targets, with more than 47% of the 17,500 jobs created under the project—totaling 11,872—were taken by women. Meanwhile, 4,908 women out of 8,612 farmers participated in various trainings, including water and soil conservation, sustainable horticultural management, and plant disease prevention and pesticide management.

The total annual greenhouse gas emissions reduction from the project is estimated at 3,874 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent starting from 2020, mainly from the increase in vegetation after the planting of vineyards and orchards and the ecological shelterbelts. The percentage of land under water conservation irrigation to total irrigated land in Ningxia increased from 19% in 2010 to 49% in 2020 under the ADB Ningxia Integrated Ecosystem and Agricultural Development Project.

The average per capita rural income increased from CNY4,675 in 2010 to CNY13,889 in 2020. In addition to the increased area of water-saving irrigation, the project supported high-value agriculture such as yellowhorn and protected agriculture in Binggou and Ma’anshan, which contributed to the increase in rural income.

“The project had a strong development impact in terms of achieving water conservation and boosting rural incomes from improved agriculture production, delivering its planned outputs effectively,” says East Asia Director General M. Teresa Kho. “It achieved its intended outcomes by increasing quality and value of horticultural crops in Ningxia. The project also made positive contributions to the ADB Strategy 2030 long-term organizational priorities.”

 Graham Dwyer

Graham Dwyer

Principal Communications Specialist, Department of Communications, ADB

This article is reproduced from Asian Development Bank.

FAR Sight Needed

Ensuring a constant level of grain production in the PRC and maintaining the country’s gains in eliminating poverty are put forward as twin policy priorities in the No 1 Central Document, released by the State Council in February. These priorities are consistent with various other government visions for the coming years, including the 14th Five-Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development (2021–2025), and will also contribute significantly to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

However, reaching these targets in a way that benefits farmers, agriculture and rural development (FAR), or san nong in Chinese, is far from straightforward, due to challenges such as soil pollution, the effects of climate change and the urban-rural income gaps. Addressing these challenges will make a far-reaching contribution to the country’s development agenda.

The first challenge is achieving a balance between the quality and quantity of food supply. The demand for more nutritious and healthy foods is increasing. For example, the production of meats is anticipated to increase by 15 percent from 2021 to 2025. An additional 30 million hectares of land is needed to grow the vegetables and fruits required to improve people’s diets. At the same time, conservation agriculture and fewer chemicals in farming may reduce yield in cultivated lands while benefiting the environmental quality.

Soil quality is another major challenge as a result of land degradation, chemical pollution and plastic residues. Although programs to combat soil pollution have had some success since 2016, there must be methodical efforts to remove existing pollutants from soils completely while preventing additional pollution from occurring. Also, resources such as water and fertilizers should be improved further to boost efficiency. The PRC’s overall water use efficiency is at a relatively low level and needs to be improved significantly to be compatible with the country’s sustainable development.

Extreme weather events such as floods and drought caused by climate change pose growing risks to crop systems. For example, flooding in the summer of 2021 damaged about 10 percent of the cultivated land in Shanxi province and about 6 percent in Henan province. Agriculture accounts for more than 10 percent of the PRC’s total greenhouse gas emissions. The stepping up of meat, milk and egg production during the 14th Five-Year Plan period may add about 330 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions. Increasing use of machinery in farming (from the current 70 percent to 75 percent by 2025) would also emit more GHGs into the atmosphere. Emissions on this scale may present an obstacle to the PRC’s pledge to peak its carbon emissions before 2030.

Although farmers’ incomes have grown steadily in  past decades, a further challenge is the still significant income gap between urban and rural residents. Incomes from crop growing are relatively low due to low grain prices and limited scale farming. Agricultural value chains need to be strengthened further to distribute more earnings to farmers.

Addressing these challenges can further the country’s development agenda and showcase promising approaches to balancing sustainable agriculture production with prosperous rural development. Here are four ways to help achieve this.

First, agricultural facilities and infrastructure need to be strengthened further.

The National High-Standard Farmland Development Plan aims to expand the area of high-standard farming lands to 71.7 million hectares by 2025 and to 80 million hectares by 2030. These lands need sufficient irrigation facilities, road and electricity connections, soil and water conservation measures, and better environmental management. Resilience to extreme weather events will also need to increase. Improved farmlands will mean that grains outputs can be maintained.

Second, sustainable land management and climate-smart agriculture should be expanded to improve soil quality and strengthen climate resilience.

Sustainable land management adopts integrated approaches to ensure land productivity while safeguarding its ecosystem services. It can address the interlinked challenges of food security and climate change by enhancing resilience and reducing emissions through less external inputs (such as energy, chemical fertilizers and pesticides) and increased organic carbon in soil. Climate adaptation can be enhanced through crop varietal selection, plant breeding, cropping patterns and ecosystem management. Climate change mitigation can be strengthened through reduced tillage, straw reapplication, improved fertilizer efficiency and restoration of degraded lands.

Third, science-based technologies and approaches need to be promoted.

Currently, croplands using high efficiency water-saving irrigation totals about 23.3 million hectares and this is expected to expand to 34 million hectares by 2025. This will greatly improve agricultural water use efficiency. While stabilizing or reducing the use of chemicals, application of biofertilizers or organic fertilizers needs to be scaled up. More nature-based solutions should be applied to improve the agricultural environmental quality and enhance resilience, such as buffer zones, ecological ditches and vegetative erosion control. Science-based monitoring of key soil and environmental indicators will be necessary.

Last, farmers’ incomes should be boosted through the optimal scaling of croplands, which can promote good agricultural practices and improve management efficiency.

These will trigger greater labor productivity and promote the transfer of labor from farming to non-farming activities, resulting in the more efficient use of resources, such as water, fertilizers and machinery. Protected agriculture, including greenhouses, can also increase the economic output of the land. Opportunities should be explored to further develop value chains with greater reliance on higher-value crops and organic or green products.

In the end, the full engagement of farmers is crucial. Only with their awareness of new approaches and improved capacity to adopt them can the PRC achieve its aim of expanding prosperity and vitalizing rural society.

Zhiming Niu

Zhiming Niu

Senior Project Officer (Environment), East Asia Department, Asian Development Bank

This Op-Ed is reproduced from China Daily.

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