Focus: Dry land, lost soil Climate change threatens global agricultural production | Reuters

WINNIPEG, CANADA/NAIROBI/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – Midwestern United States. Springs in the Corn Belt, where corn 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.

November 14th, Midwestern United States. Springs in the Corn Belt, where corn is the main crop, are usually dusty and dry. Pictured is the dried up riverbed of the Ganjiang River, which leads to Lake Poyang in Jiangxi province, China. August 2022. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

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, she planted a meter-tall grass around her fields as a buffer zone. During the winter she also planted crops to cover the ground.

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 one-third of China’s agricultural crops, suffered from water shortages. In hopes of regenerating soil that has been devoid of nutrients by the scorching heat, scientists have launched rockets into clouds to artificially supply “seeds” for raindrops.

But that was no silver bullet.

From the United States to China to Kenya, human efforts to conserve soils are utterly 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 perilous situation.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), soil erosion will reduce global crop production by 10% by 2050. During this time, the world’s total population is expected to increase by about 20% to approach 10 billion, and the number of people affected by malnutrition and hunger is increasing.

Rangelands in northern Kenya are particularly at risk. Worsening drought is wiping out vegetation from the earth’s surface, leaving soils more susceptible to damage and complicating efforts to modify cultivation practices.

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“The soil left behind is very fragile ( It’s like 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 centimeters of soil, so conservation is critical.

Plants grow by absorbing sunlight and absorbing carbon dioxide. The carbon is cycled into the soil and fed to microbes, which in turn create an environment in which more plants can grow.

Extreme weather, partly due to climate change, will not only damage crops, it will also erode soils, stripping 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, one-third of the world’s total land mass is already degraded through 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, livestock overgrazing and inadequate fertilizer use. I say yes.

“Land degradation is a vicious cycle. Once the soil is degraded, extreme weather can have very bad consequences,” Vargas said.

Vargas goes further on FAO’s loss projections for global crop production. “This 10% figure is a real food security issue.”

The Midwest, which was dry this summer, is actually getting more rain in the long run.

Three days of storms in mid-May washed away up to 3 tons of sediment per acre in 24 Minnesota counties. The data comes from the Daily Erosion Project, an initiative at Iowa State University to estimate soil loss.

Rachel Shutman, an associate professor of sustainable agriculture at the University of Maine, says land erosion is particularly at risk in the Midwest and Northeast. This is because the amount of rainfall is extremely high compared to normal years, and this trend is expected to continue until the end of this century.

An increase in precipitation 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 heat this summer with 40% less rain than normal.

In August, Liu Zhiyu, the Chinese government agency responsible for water resources, said in six key agricultural provinces in the upper and middle reaches of the Yangtze River, one-third of the soil was drier than ideal as a result of drought. revealed that he had In rural areas of these states, about a tenth of the counties had soils that were affected by “severe water shortages,” it said.

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The artificial rain program implemented by China has had a certain 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 is not a long-term solution.

“Artificial rain is just the icing on the cake,” said Cao Zhiqiang, deputy director of the China Meteorological Administration’s artificial weather operation center, at a press conference in September. He declined to comment on the success or failure of the rainfall campaign.

Other measures, such as drilling thousands of new wells and encouraging farmers to switch crops, have also had limited effect.

Farmers around the shrunken Lake of Poyang in Jiangxi told Reuters that all kinds of crops suffered badly as a result of less rain. Hu Baolin, 70, from Xinyao village, said the rapeseed he cultivated didn’t even bloom, and the pomelo fruit grew to only 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. It is said that they pick up fallen ears from dry rice fields and take them home to use as fodder for chickens.

Some experts are optimistic. At least some regions could escape the crisis, he said.

FAO this year set out 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 farming and forestry, in which trees are planted in and around cultivated and pasture land.

Christine Morgan, chief scientific officer of the North Carolina-based Soil Health Institute, said soil could recover if farmers adopted better practices more widely.

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“We always think that something new will help us, but really it’s just a matter of how we do things differently,” Morgan said.

Options include not tilting 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 severe.

“When I was young, the soil was never this dry,” said Maryan Rekopil, 50, a livestock farmer who raises cows and goats in the Samburu region, kicking dirt into the air.

“This was a very beautiful place. Giraffes, zebras and gazelles grazed next to our goats. Now all the wildlife is gone and the streams are dry.”

As a matter of fact, Kenya is losing the moisture of the land. 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 to be highly degraded and more than 27% is considered to be 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 no-tillage, minimal-tillage, and mixed farming and forestry practices, but this is still the case.

None of the children playing in Lekopil’s village in northern Kenya remembered the true rainy season. They raise camels and are getting used to walking around the dusty cracks in the web. None of this was seen when Lekopil was young.

The drought has caused the village’s water sources to become stagnant, increasing sickness among children, Lekopil said. Keeping cattle and goats alive often forces farmers to travel hundreds of miles in search of water and pasture.

CIFOR-ICRAF soil scientist Winowicki said many of Kenya’s pastures were devoid of grass, leaving the land compacted and more susceptible to erosion in the future.

According to CIFOR-ICRAF chief scientist Thorganner Bergen, in Kenya, India and many other parts of the world, large amounts of soil are being eroded, and local seedbanks are becoming increasingly popular. It is said that grass seeds that sprout in the forest have also disappeared. In other words, in some areas, it is necessary to manually sow seeds for soil regeneration.

“The whole system is at a tipping point. Climate change is just accelerating this whole situation.”

(Rod Nickel, Ayenat Mersie, David Stanway, translation by Erkleen)

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