The rich, black soil that nurtured a growing China is washed away

In one of his first acts as supreme leader, Chairman Mao Zedong sent tens of thousands of soldiers and educated youths to China’s northeastern provinces with one mission: to raze the forests and replace them. by homes and farms, cultivating a breadbasket that would feed a billion people. for decades.

The campaign was a success. The Black Soil region became essential for feeding the growing population, and over the following decades the demand for arable land also increased. In the ten years from 1990 to 2000, for example, China’s three northeast provinces added 2 million hectares of agricultural land, and today the northeast region generates up to 50% of China’s japonica rice crop, 41% of its soybeans and 34% of its corn.

But the expansion of farmland has come at the expense of millions of hectares of forests, grasslands and wetlands, and increasing exposure to wind and rain has led to erosion. In the 1950s, the soil was so rich that “a pair of chopsticks would sprout in it,” locals said. Today, soil organic matter has declined by 75%, and in some areas the black soil layer is shrinking by 1 to 2 millimeters per year.

Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences estimate that soybean production will fall by 40-60% and that corn would barely grow in the region if, in the most extreme scenario, all of its black soil was uprooted, regardless of the amount of fertilizer used. .

Against the backdrop of climate change, global trade disputes and now the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Beijing has stepped up its focus on food security, including efforts to protect the country’s most precious soil. By 2025, China plans to improve the organic matter of nearly 6.7 million hectares of black soil by 10%. It’s a good start, but would still be well below 1950s levels.

Black Soil only exists in a few places in the world – in central Eurasia and especially in Ukraine, and in the Red River Valley in the United States and Canada – and it is so powerful that sometimes criminals are arrested for trafficking these products on the black market.

In China, the fertile soil is a product of the geography of the region and its particular history. Long, cold winters slow microbial decomposition, preserving much of the organic matter in the soil. And during the Qing dynasty, the ruling Manchus fiercely protected their homelands, allowing the black earth layer to grow undisturbed.

“China has always put a lot of effort into safeguarding food security,” said Lam Hon-Ming, a professor at the School of Life Sciences at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “In the past, most efforts were aimed at increasing food productivity to feed everyone, now there is more awareness of sustainability and protection of the whole ecosystem for agriculture, including the protection of the ground.”

One of the most common ways to preserve soil is to return organic waste to agricultural land to maintain soil moisture, improve fertility, and prevent wind and water erosion. Experts based in Lishu in Jilin province have gone door to door trying to persuade farmers not to burn or clean up leftover stems and leaves, as is local tradition.

Global warming is making the situation worse. Average temperatures are nearly 2 degrees Celsius higher in the Black Soil region of China today than they were 50 years ago, a difference large enough to accelerate the decomposition of soil organic matter more rapidly. Extreme weather events, such as droughts and floods, have also caused more soil loss.

Degraded soils, in turn, are also bad news for the planet. Healthy and fertile soils function as important carbon sinks. When their fertility is lost, their ability to hold carbon also declines. In the 30 years from 1990 to 2020, the black soil carbon stock has fallen by about 650 million tons in northeast China. It would take about 300 million hectares of forest in the United States a year to sequester that much carbon dioxide.

“Although many Chinese researchers have worked to help the agricultural sector adapt to climate change, the overall national response is still lagging behind,” said Li Zhao, climate risk researcher at Greenpeace East Asia. “A more systematic adaptation strategy and implementation is urgently needed.”

Last summer, 11 people were sentenced to seven years in prison for illegally mining and selling black soil in Heilongjiang province, a series of trials that showed China’s willingness to use military forces. order to protect the earth. “We need to make sure that the black earth will not shrink and degenerate,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said during a 2020 visit to Jilin province.

Xi vowed to “protect and put to good use the ‘giant panda of the cultivated land'”, drawing an analogy to the much-loved national animal which, after dedicated conservation efforts, was removed from global endangered lists Last year.

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