In northern China, the overuse of fertilizers and other unsustainable farming methods are causing farmland to dry out and, according to an international study, posing a significant threat to the country’s food and water resources.
The leader of the study, Yaling Liu said that that the overuse of fertilizers in China, which currently rates high above the global average, dates back to the 1980’s. Liu, a research associate at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory said that "A lot of Chinese farmers are not well educated ... they're unwilling to risk reducing fertilizer; traditional thinking is that more fertilizer leads to higher yield”.
Despite these traditional ways of thinking, research has shown that excessive use of fertilizer not only has little effect on crop yield, but also has a range of negative effects on the environment.
Researchers from Beijing’s China Agricultural University and Purdue University looked at data gathered from farmland across northern China. They found that throughout the last three decades, soil moisture had decreased significantly.
Not only was the moisture level well below the optimal level of 40 to 85 percent of the water-holding capacity of the soil, but also levels in northern China seem to only be getting drier. By 2090, Liu predicts that the soil won’t be sustainable for any crop growth. With this region accounting for 65% of China’s farmland, this prediction raises a lot of concern.
This research proves that these damaging farming methods, namely overuse of fertilizer, are the main factors for the dry soil. From 1978 to 2013, the amount of fertilizer used in this region has increased more than six times its original amount.
By compiling data from meteorological monitoring stations, the research team was able to find a correlation between the moisture reduction in soil with the increased use of fertilizer between 1983 and 2012.
Liu says that the main purpose of the study is to educate farmers on the damage that these methods of farming can cause to the environment as well as to encourage the use of more sustainable methods. Liu understands this will be a long-term goal that will take time and patience to achieve.
China’s ruling Communist party is hyper-aware of food security issues and the damage the country has done to its natural resources. China no longer fishes in its own waters due to pollution and overfishing which makes feeding its population more expensive than it otherwise would be. Beijing has recently launched crackdowns on illegal meat sellers and previously conducted similar raids on infant formula makers in efforts to improve the country’s food supply chain.