Apple is one of the most important cash crops in China. However, negative economic, environmental and social impacts are associated with its production. This study aims to apply a holistic systems perspective to understand existing problems associated with apple production in China and use this information to improve its sustainability. A structured survey was administered to farmers (n = 245) in Shandong and Shanxi provinces, combined with semi-structured interviews with apple supply chain stakeholders (n = 25). Themes, dimensions and relationships were identified based on an inductive thematic analysis of interview data, and then triangulated against the survey data. Interpretive Structural Modelling and Cross-Impact Matrix Multiplication Applied to Classification methods were applied to investigate interrelationships and effects of the elicited elements within the system. The results indicated that various environmental, economic and social problems are associated with apple production in China, including environmental and health risks associated with synthetic input applications, yield instability, deterioration of apple quality, farmers’ uncertainty about accessing routes to market, and the ageing farming workforce. The interaction of socio-economic and supply chain issues has contributed to the system “lock-in” to unsustainable practices within the apple production system. Existing agricultural policies were ineffective as they did not include policy leverage to mitigate the multiple factors driving lock-in to unsustainable practices within the system. The research has provided evidence to enable policymakers to develop effective and targeted strategies to facilitate sustainable production within the apple production system. In particular, the future policy mix should consider the entirety of the food system including perspectives and requirements of different stakeholders. The three-stage approach applied has demonstrated its feasibility of investigating sustainability issues facing a particular industry within a specific cultural and policy context.
- Apple production
- food system
- interpretive structural modelling
- Innovate UK