By Rod Nickel, Ayenat Mersie and David Stanway
WINNIPEG/NAIROBI/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – In the dusty Corn Belt of the United States this spring, the land was drowning. In the Yangtze River Basin in China, it is very dry. Farmers in both countries are fighting a losing battle to save the soil that produces our food.
Carolyn Olson believes she did everything she could to protect her 1,100-acre farm near Cottonwood, Minnesota. She grows buffer strips of tall grass three feet high around her fields to protect the soil and, in winter, plants crops to cover the ground.
But scorching thunderstorms in May washed away so much soil during the planting season that she expects the harvest to suffer.
“When you get this much rain, almost four inches in about an hour, even your best practices fly out the window,” said the 55-year-old, whose farm has been in her husband’s family since 1913.
On the other hand, there is not enough water in the vast Yangtze basin, which produces a third of Chinese crops. Scientists are using rocket fire into clouds to artificially “seed” them with rain in hopes of replenishing soil drained of nutrients by scorching temperatures.
It’s not a magic bullet, however.
From the United States and China to Kenya, human efforts to preserve soil are no match for increasingly extreme weather conditions, which are damaging the living system and depleting its ability to produce food, according to Reuters interviews with dozens of farmers, scientists and other soil experts. specialists.
Soil erosion could lead to a loss of 10% of global agricultural production by 2050, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). With the world’s population expected to increase by a fifth to almost 10 billion by then, malnutrition and starvation are expected to affect more and more people.
Few places are experiencing a deeper crisis than the rangelands of northern Kenya, where deepening drought has stripped vegetation, exposing the soil to damage and confusing efforts to adapt farming methods.
“The soil left there is very vulnerable, like the skin of the Earth…you don’t wear clothes when the sun is beating down hard,” said Leigh Ann Winowiecki, soil scientist in Nairobi at CIFOR-ICRAF, a research center on the benefits of trees for people and landscapes.
FAKE RAIN: ICING ON THE CAKE
UN scientists say it can take up to 1,000 years for nature to produce 2-3cm of soil, making conservation essential.
Plants grow by absorbing sunlight and carbon dioxide. They recycle carbon in the soil, feeding microorganisms which in turn create the conditions for more plants to grow.
Extreme weather conditions, some of which are caused by climate change, not only damage crops but also erode soil and deplete nutrients such as carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus from the complex ecosystem, specialists say.
This leads to land degradation – the decline in its ability to sustain plant life and, by extension, animal and human life.
According to the United Nations, one-third of the planet’s total land area is already degraded by erosion, nutrient depletion or other means.
Ronald Vargas, soil scientist and secretary of FAO’s Global Soil Partnership, said extreme weather conditions were accelerating land degradation already triggered by deforestation, overgrazing by livestock and inappropriate use of fertilizers.
“Land degradation is a vicious cycle. Once you have degraded soils and you have these bad events (weather), then you have really bad second consequences,” Vargas said.
Regarding the FAO’s projected loss in global agricultural production, he added: “These 10% represent a real problem for food security”.
The U.S. Midwest, parched by rain this summer, is actually getting wetter over time.
Three-day rainstorms in mid-May washed away up to three tons of soil per acre in two dozen Minnesota counties, according to data from the Daily Erosion Project, an Iowa State University initiative to estimate soil loss.
Rachel Schattman, assistant professor of sustainable agriculture at the University of Maine, said the Midwest and Northeast United States were particularly vulnerable to soil erosion because they received more extreme amounts of rainfall than the normal, a trend which should continue until the end of the century.
In the Yangtze River Basin, wetter weather would be welcome. The region’s agricultural belts, which stretch from Sichuan in the southwest to Shanghai on the east coast, received 40 percent less rainfall than normal over the summer and hit record high temperatures.
Liu Zhiyu, an official with China’s water ministry, said in August that a third of the soil in six key agricultural provinces along the upper and middle reaches of the Yangtze “was drier than optimal due to the In about one-tenth of the rural counties in these provinces, the soil suffered from “serious water deficiency”.
China’s cloud seeding program has offered some relief, with 211 operations launched in August alone to induce rainfall on 1.45 million square kilometers of parched farmland, but experts say it’s not is not a long term solution.
“The artificial rains can only be the icing on the cake,” Zhao Zhiqiang, vice director of China’s weather modification bureau, said at a news conference in September. He did not say whether the operations were successful.
Similarly, other measures such as digging thousands of new wells and encouraging farmers to change crops to increase yields have limited impact.
Farmers around the narrow Poyang Lake in Jiangxi province told Reuters that all kinds of crops were severely underdeveloped due to the lack of rainfall. Hu Baolin, a 70-year-old man from Xinyao Village, said his rapeseed hadn’t even bloomed and his pomelo was a third of its usual size.
In Jiangxi’s Hukou agricultural district, many plantations of sesame, corn, sweet potatoes and cotton have dried up, said a 72-year-old resident who gave only his surname Chen as he spoke. was picking up rice in a cooked field to bring it home. feed his chickens.
THE CAMELS COME, THE GIRAFFES LEAVE
Some experts are optimistic that the world can recoil from peril, at least in some places.
FAO drafted an action plan this year that aims to improve and maintain the health of 50% of the world’s soils by 2030, adopting practices such as crop rotation and agroforestry, a system of land use that plants trees in and around croplands and pastures.
Cristine Morgan, scientific director of the North Carolina-based Soil Health Institute, said soils could regenerate if farmers apply better methods more widely.
“We always think something new is going to save us,” Morgan said. “But we really just need to change our behavior.”
Options include not tilling the soil to reduce erosion and planting off-season cover crops to prevent erosion and nutrient loss. The practices are used on only 25% and 4% of U.S. farm acreage, respectively, according to estimates from BMO Capital Markets, which said overhauling cropping systems has upfront costs for farmers, with yield losses during the first years.
In Kenya, however, the damage is extensive.
“The ground was never so sandy when I was young,” said Maliyan Lekopir, 50, a cattle and goat herder in the Samburu region, throwing dirt in the air.
“This place was so beautiful. Giraffes, zebras, gazelles were grazing next to our goats. Now all the animals are gone and the streams have dried up.
Indeed, land is parched in the country, where prolonged droughts have become more frequent since 2000, with the current drought being the worst in four decades.
Over 60% of the country’s total land is rated as highly degraded and over 27% as very highly degraded, according to Kenya’s Ministry of Environment, taking into account factors such as vegetation cover and its ability to withstand erosion. This is despite the efforts of green groups who encourage farmers to use no-till or minimal-till agriculture and to resort to agroforestry.
None of the children playing in the village of Lekopir in northern Kenya remember a real rainy season. They became accustomed to herding camels and dodging the growing network of dusty ravines, none of which were present during Lekopir’s youth.
The drought has made the water sources that this village depends on increasingly stagnant, making the children even sicker, Lekopir said. To keep the remaining cattle and goats alive, herders often have to travel hundreds of kilometers in search of water or pasture.
Grass has disappeared from much of Kenya’s vast pastures, leaving the land subject to future compaction or erosion, said CIFOR-ICRAF soil scientist Winowiecki.
So much soil has eroded in Kenya, India and many other places around the world that the soil’s seed bank – grass seeds ready to sprout when the rains fall – has also been depleted, which means restoring some areas would require reseeding it manually, said CIFOR-ICRAF senior scientist Tor-Gunnar Vagen.
“The whole system is at a tipping point. Climate change is only accelerating all of this.
(Reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Ayenat Mersie in Nairobi, David Stanway in Shanghai and Xiaoyu Yin in Beijing; Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Pravin Char)