WINNIPEG, CANADA/NAIROBI/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – West-central United States. Springs in the Corn Belt, where maize is the main crop, are usually dusty and dry. But this spring, the area was flooded. In China, meanwhile, farmland in the Yangtze River Basin has dried up. In both countries, farmers are fighting a losing battle to save the soil that produces food for people.
Caroline Olson, 55, a farmer near Cottonwood, Minnesota, was doing what she could to protect her 1,100 acres of farmland. To protect the soil, a buffer zone with 1 meter high grass has been planted around the fields. They planted crops to cover the ground during the winter as well.
In May, however, heavy rains washed away large amounts of soil during the planting season. Olson expects a bad harvest.
“When you get about four inches of rain in an hour, it can ruin your best efforts,” Olson said. Her farm has been owned by her husband’s family since 1913.
In contrast, the vast Yangtze River basin, which produces a third of China’s agricultural crops, suffered from water shortages. Hoping to regenerate soil that’s been stripped of nutrients by the searing heat, scientists have launched rockets into the clouds to artificially provide “seeds” for raindrops.
But that wasn’t a silver bullet.
From the United States to China to Kenya, human efforts to conserve soils are unmatched by extreme weather events that are damaging ecosystems and reducing food production capacity. Reuters interviews with dozens of farmers, scientists and other soil experts reveal the dangerous situation.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), soil erosion will reduce global agricultural production by 10% by 2050. During this period, the total world population is projected to increase by about 20 % to approach 10 billion and the number of people affected by malnutrition and hunger is on the rise.
Grasslands in northern Kenya are particularly at risk. Worsening drought is wiping vegetation from the earth’s surface, leaving soils more susceptible to damage and complicating efforts to change cultivation practices.
“The ground left behind is very fragile (it’s as if the earth is wearing no clothes and exposing its skin to the scorching sun.”
UN scientists say it can take up to 1,000 years for nature to create a few inches of soil, so conservation is key.
Plants grow by absorbing sunlight and absorbing carbon dioxide. The carbon is recycled back into the soil and fed to the microbes, which in turn create an environment for more plants to grow.
Extreme weather, partly due to climate change, will not only harm crops but also erode soils, robbing ecosystems of nutrients such as carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus, experts say.
This leads to land degradation. It means that the ability to support plant life, and by extension animal and human life, will be reduced.
According to the United Nations, a third of the world’s total land mass is already degraded due to erosion and nutrient loss.
Soil scientist Ronald Vargas, executive director of FAO’s Global Soil Partnership, said extreme weather has accelerated soil degradation, which began with deforestation, overgrazing by livestock and inadequate use of fertilizers.
“Land degradation is a vicious cycle. Once soil is degraded, extreme weather conditions can have very negative consequences,” said Vargas.
Vargas goes beyond FAO’s loss projections for world agricultural production. “This 10% figure is a real food safety issue.”
The Midwest, which was dry this summer, is actually getting more rain in the long run.
Three days of storms in mid-May swept up to 3 tons of sediment per acre in 24 Minnesota counties. The data comes from the Daily Erosion Project, an Iowa State University initiative to estimate soil loss.
Rachel Shutman, an associate professor of sustainable agriculture at the University of Maine, says soil erosion is particularly at risk in the Midwest and Northeast. This is because the amount of precipitation is extremely high compared to normal years and this trend is expected to continue until the end of this century.
An increase in rainfall would be welcomed in the Yangtze River Basin. The agricultural belt, which stretches from Sichuan province in the southwest to Shanghai on the east coast, experienced record-breaking heat this summer with 40 percent less rain than normal.
In August, Liu Zhiyu, China’s government agency responsible for water resources, said that in six key agricultural provinces in the upper and middle reaches of the Yangtze River, a third of the soil was drier than ideal due to drought. he had In rural areas of these states, about a tenth of counties had land affected by “severe water shortages,” he said.
China’s artificial rain program has had an effect. In August alone, 211 “seeding” operations were carried out to bring rain to 1.45 million square kilometers of dry farmland. But experts say this isn’t a long-term solution.
“Man-made rain is just the icing on the cake,” Cao Zhiqiang, deputy director of the China Meteorological Administration’s man-made weather operations center, said at a press conference in September. He avoided mentioning the success or failure of the artificial rain operation.
Other measures, such as drilling thousands of new wells and encouraging farmers to switch crops, have also had limited effect.
Farmers around the Poyang Restricted Lake in Jiangxi told Reuters that all types of crops have suffered greatly due to less rain. Hu Baolin, 70, from Xinyao village, said the oilseed rape he grew didn’t even flower and the pomelo fruit only grew to a third of its normal size.
Hukou County, Jiangxi Province is an agricultural area. A 72-year-old resident who gave me only his last name, Chen, said many of his sesame, corn, sweet potato and cotton plantations had dried up due to lack of water. They are said to collect ears that have fallen from dry rice paddies and bring them home to use as fodder for chickens.
Some experts are optimistic. At least some regions could escape the crisis, she said.
FAO this year defined an action plan to improve and maintain the health of 50% of the world’s soils by 2030. The pillars of the plan are crop rotation and land use planning called mixed agriculture and forestry, where trees are planted in and around cropland and pasture land.
Christine Morgan, scientific director of the North Carolina-based Soil Health Institute, said soil could bounce back if farmers adopted better practices more broadly.
“We always think something new is going to help us, but really it’s just a matter of how we do things differently,” Morgan said.
Options include not sloping fields to prevent erosion and planting cover crops during the off-season to prevent erosion and nutrient loss. BMO Capital Markets estimates that only 25% and 4% of US arable land use these two methods, respectively.
In Kenya the damage is serious.
“When I was young, the ground was never so dry,” said Maryan Rekopil, 50, a cattle rancher who tends cows and goats in the Samburu region, kicking dirt into the air.
“This used to be a very beautiful place. Giraffes, zebras and gazelles used to graze next to our goats. Now all the wildlife has disappeared and the streams are dry.”
Kenya, in fact, is losing soil moisture. Since 2000, prolonged droughts have become the norm and we are now experiencing the worst drought in 40 years.
More than 60% of the land is considered highly degraded and over 27% is considered severely degraded in terms of vegetation cover and resistance to erosion, according to Kenya’s Ministry of Environment. Environmental groups are urging farmers to use mixed farming and forestry, no-till, minimum-till practices, but that’s still the case.
None of the children playing in the village of Lekopil in northern Kenya remembered the real rainy season. They raise camels and are getting used to walking in the dusty crevices of the canvas. None of this was seen when Lekopil was young.
The drought has caused the village’s water sources to become stagnant, increasing illnesses among children, Lekopil said. Keeping cattle and goats alive often forces farmers to travel hundreds of kilometers in search of water and pasture.
CIFOR-ICRAF soil scientist Winowicki said many of Kenya’s pastures were devoid of grass, leaving the land compact and more susceptible to erosion in the future.
According to CIFOR-ICRAF lead scientist Thorganner Bergen, in Kenya, India and many other parts of the world, large amounts of soil are being eroded and local seed banks are becoming increasingly popular. Grass seeds that germinate in the forest are said to have also disappeared. In other words, in some areas it is necessary to sow seeds manually for soil regeneration.
“The whole system is at a tipping point. Climate change is just accelerating the whole situation.”
(Rod Nickel, Ayenat Mersie, David Stanway, translated by Erkleen)