Friday, April 26, 2013

Declining Soil Fertility: "Hidden Loss of Land"

The Peoples Daily called attention to China's problem of declining soil fertility, calling it a "hidden loss of land." China's massive increases in agricultural output essentially strip the nutrients and organic matter from the soil without replacing them. In other words, producing crops in China is essentially an exploitative mining activity that sucks resources out of the ground.

A villager in eastern Henan Province picked up a handful of soil and remarked, “This land can’t compare with what it used to be!” The farmer elaborated: In the past, the soil was moist and whatever you planted in it would grow. Now it's dried out and you can't grow anything without chemical fertilizer.

Peoples Daily explained that soil fertility is based on its morphology and physical properties, presence of organic matter, available phosphorus, potassium and other chemical properties. Relying on chemical fertilizer for production and continuous intensive cultivate broke the land’s ecological structure, reducing its productivity.

According to the vice director of an agricultural resource planning institute at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, soil infertility is one of the chief constraints on agricultural production potential. He says that Chinese producers rely heavily on chemical fertilizer and water input for output growth. Land "eats water, eats fertilizer, eats labor." Soil fertility is depleted by chemical fertilizer use, prompting even higher fertilizer application and creating to a vicious circle.

Chemical fertilizer use is high compared to other countries. The article says nitrogen fertilizer application per hectare on rice in China is 2-to-3 times that of Japan and South Korea. China has also shifted to fertilizer-demanding crops like corn and vegetables while low-input crops like soybeans (with accordingly low yields) are abandoned.

Chemical fertilizer is not used efficiently. The mix of nutrients is not properly formulated and large portions of chemicals are not absorbed by the land, instead washing into waterways and causing pollution.

Since 2005, the Ministry of Agriculture has been subsidizing soil fertility testing in the hope that farmers will add a more efficient mix of fertilizers. The fertility tests are not widely used and statistics show fertilizer use climbing steadily.

The article hails a scheme to forge relationships between fertilizer companies and farmers in Henan Province. The "four party, three integration" program aims to link fertilizer companies with agricultural departments, news media, and farmers to improve the efficiency of fertilizer application.

The article doesn't mention that people who use an asset that doesn't belong to them are inclined to use it up as fast as they can. If you drive a leased automobile, you don't have a strong incentive to maintain it. If you don't own a piece of land and you know it might be expropriated or rented out to a company next year, you don't have much incentive to invest in improving its fertility. Since nobody really owns China's farmland, nobody invests in it maintaining it and improving it. That's the government's job and the government is too busy building subways, airports and skyscrapers to make sure there are earthworms in the dirt.

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