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The fertile black soil in northeastern China, crucial to food security, is suffering degradation and declining yields. Will a new law help protect China’s ‘giant panda soil’?

By Wang Yan , Zhang Xinyu Updated Sept.1

Tractors harvest crops in Heihe, Heilongjiang Province, September 30, 2020

Farmer Yang Haijun said he had been noticing significant changes to the once fertile black soil on his family land for more than a decade.  

Yang, in his late 40s, lives in Shengli, Hailun City in Heilongjiang Province, part of northeast China which is known for high-yielding arable land that makes it one of the country’s most important grain producing regions.  

Speaking with a NewsChina reporter at his farm in May, Yang described what he has seen. The roots of the corn and soybeans he plants do not penetrate the soil like they used to, and the seedlings look emaciated. No longer soaking into the soil, the rain pools on the surface and evaporates. Even though he uses more fertilizer than his father did, the harvest declines every year. Black soil land, one of the most fertile soils in China, though rich in organic matter, is visibly deteriorating, Yang said.  

The definition of black soil varies across countries and regions. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) defines it as “mineral soils which have a black surface horizon, enriched with organic carbon that is at least 25 centimeters deep.” The FAO categorizes black soil into three types, including Chernozems, Kastanozems and Phaeozems. Black soils in northeastern China are Phaeozems. Across China, black soil has six categories, including Chernozems and Phaeozems, and four others, mainly brown soil and steppe soil.  

Characterized by its dark color and rich texture, black soil is found in parts of the world known for grain production, including Ukraine, from where it extends into the Eurasian steppes of Russia and Kazakhstan, the Great Plains of North America and the pampas of Argentina. In China, it covers China’s northeastern provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning and in some parts of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. According to the Northeastern China Black Soil White Paper 2020 published by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in July 2021, there are approximately 1.09 million square kilometers of black soil, accounting for some 12 percent of the FAO’s estimate of 725 million hectares worldwide. China contains the third-largest area of black soil, after Russia and Kazakhstan. Cultivation of black soil plays a significant role in the global economy and food security, with major crops including sunflowers, wheat, millet, potatoes, barley and sugarbeet.  

The black soil region in China produces about a quarter of the country’s total grain output. However, decades of over-exploitation and unsustainable land use have resulted in a substantial loss of soil and productivity.  

In the early 2000s, farmers and scientists started to realized the severity of the threat is to the black soil region, and the problem finally caught government attention. On June 24, China’s Law on Black Soil Conservation was adopted by the Standing Committee of the 13th National People’s Congress (NPC). The law will take effect on August 1, 2022.  

Li Zhanshu, chairman of the NPC Standing Committee, said in June 2022 during an inspection tour to Heilongjiang that black soil protection is a matter of national food security, ecological security, and the sustainable development of the Chinese nation. “We should effectively protect black soil land, the ‘giant panda’ of cultivated land,” Li said. 

Farmers plow the fields on a large State farm in northeastern China, 1984

Natural or Man-made Erosion 

Zhang Yizhi, a former professor at Heilongjiang Bayi Agricultural Reclamation University, published research into black soil conditions in the university’s journal in October 2010. His analysis concluded that the average thickness of the black soil layer before extensive development of uncultivated land in the 20th century was 50 centimeters, but by 2010, the average thickness had reduced to around 30 centimeters. It takes 200-400 years to form a centimeter of new soil in a mild climate, according to the FAO.  

Soil erosion is a major cause of black soil thinning. According to the China Water and Soil Conservation Bulletin in 2019, the area of soil erosion in northeast China reached 218,700 square kilometers, accounting for 20.11 percent of the total area of black soil land. The black soil layer reduces at an average annual rate of 0.1 to 0.5 centimeters.  

Zhang Xingyi, a researcher with the Northeast Institute of Geography and Agroecology with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) told NewsChina that most of the natural erosion in northeast China occurs on sloping farmland, where the soil in the middle and upper parts of the slope is stripped and then deposited at the foot of the slope. The black soil layer on the slope thins, and the fertile black soil at the foot of the slope is buried, leading to a decline in soil quality and reduced productivity.  

Research by Zhang Xingyi and his team shows this decline, combined with the water stress caused by the loss of surface runoff of sloping farmland, has led to a 10 percent decrease in the area’s grain production capacity.  

Gully erosion, or removal of soil along drainage lines by surface water runoff, is another form of natural erosion. Zhang has investigated gully erosion in northeast China where some gullies are deeply eroded. “These eroded ditches can become 10-meter-deep gullies,” Zhang said. Residents in their 70s and 80s told Zhang that decades ago, their village had a small ditch that people could leap easily, but now the gully is dozens of meters wide with high cliffs, and no one can easily cross. The Ministry of Water Resources conducted a survey on gully erosion in the black soil area in 2021. It found at least 600,000 eroded gullies in Northeast China, second only to the Loess Plateau of northern China.  

Wind erosion also has an important impact on black soil degradation, mainly in the west of the black soil area where conditions are arid. According to the Northeastern China Black Soil White Paper 2020, 11.1 percent of the total black soil area is affected, and the average annual wind erosion thickness is 0.5 to 1.0 millimeters, or 20 to 30 percent of its total annual erosion.  

Bingzi Village in Songyuan City in the northwest of Jilin Province has suffered frequent droughts over the past 30 years. Lin Xiangzhi, former secretary of the village, told NewsChina that during planting season, strong winds blow the seeds away and uproot the seedlings.  

Black soil degradation is also caused by reduced soil fertility, mainly because of a decline in soil organic matter. The higher the organic matter content, the darker the soil. A degraded black soil becomes lighter in color and thus less nutritious. According to the White Paper, organic matter content in the cultivated black soil layer has dropped by one-third on average, but by as much as half in some areas in the past 60 years.  

This dramatic decline was mainly caused by extensive cultivation of new farmland from 1949 to 1960, when large State farms were carved out of the land in northeastern China. Farms and fields sprouted where previously there had been forests, and intensive farming turned the region into the country’s granary.  

After years of intensive cultivation, black soil hardens. Farmer Yang Haijun said that for decades, he did not plow much deeper than 10 centimeters, but even so, he noticed the bottom layers are impacted.  

Liu Jie, dean of Heilongjiang Province Black Soil Land Protection and Utilization Institute told NewsChina that unsustainable farming methods are the primary cause of the black soil becoming harder and thinner. “For example, the nutrients from the soil’s organic matter removed by the growth of crops are not returned to the field,” Liu said. “After mechanized farming like rotary tillage which hardens the soil, it should be deeply loosened.” Overfarming, including failure to let fields lie fallow and overuse of fertilizer, degrade the soil. As it degrades, farmers apply even more fertilizer to make up for the loss in productivity. 

Shift to Preservation 
Although he knew his soil was degrading, Yang did not know where to turn. He resorted to fertilizer to maintain yields.  

For decades, most domestic research focused only on the exploitation of black soil lands. A shift toward preservation only started in the early 2000s.  

In September 2004, Shenyang Institute of Applied Ecology under CAS led a team of over 30 experts to do field research on black soil land. Zhang Xudong, a researcher at Shenyang Institute of Ecology who led the research told NewsChina: “We wanted to see the problems with the black soil land in northeastern China with our own eyes, and ascertain what extent the land had been degraded.” Wang Jingkuan, dean of the School of Land and Environment, Shenyang Agricultural University was also on the team. In Wang’s view, it was only after that inspection that academics decided to explore black soil preservation, later gaining recognition at the national level with more research being conducted into sustainable soil management.  

Han Xiaochuan, a researcher at the Northeast Institute of Geography of CAS and the leader of the Heilongjiang black soil land protection and utilization expert group has conducted and designed 13 long-term experiments since 1985 to research the changes and degradation mechanisms after virgin black soil was brought into cultivation. Han proposed fertile tillage techniques in 2005. The key techniques of the project he later summarized as the “Longjiang Model” are mixing straw and organic fertilizer into a black soil layer of less than 35 centimeters to form a fertile cultivated layer. According to the White Paper, farmland that has been treated this way will see increases in corn and soybean yields of 10.5 percent and 11.3 percent. 
Yang Haijun’s farmland has been a pilot project for Han’s research since 2005. Yang said that in the second year, his corn yield increased by about 80 kilograms per mu (0.06 hectares), and he could feel the ground was softer.  

Zhang Xudong also began preparing a long-term experimental site for conservation tillage in the winter of 2006. Conservation tillage aims to lessen soil and water loss. The conservation tillage method was developed in the 1930s and widely adopted since the 1960s in the US to combat wind erosion and prevent soil runoff. It involves plowing back the leftovers from the previous year’s crops, such as straw stubble or crop roots to prevent soil erosion. According to Zhao, farmers should use crop leftovers to cover fields before and after planting a new crop and ensure organic residue on the surface accounts for at least 30 percent of the planted area’s entire surface.  

In 2007, due to the efforts of Zhang Xudong, a conservation tillage research center was set up by CAS in Lishu County, Jilin Province. Guan Yixin, a member of Zhang Xudong’s team, said it aims to provide decision makers with precise data on how much land production capacity can be increased after adopting conservation tillage for 10 years. In 2010, a research team from China Agricultural University set up a conservation tillage research and development base in Lishu County. According to the White Paper, conservation tillage techniques have achieved significant achievements, increasing farmland production by about 1,000 kilograms per hectare compared with conventional tillage, and saving up to 1,650 yuan (US$247) per hectare.  

The conservation tillage practiced in Lishu County became known as the “Lishu Model,” and it was written into the Implementation Plan of the National Black Soil Land Protection Project (2021-2025). 

Farmers practice conservation tillage at an agricultural ecological experimental site in Hailun, Heilongjiang Province

Perverse Incentives
Despite the effectiveness of conservation tillage practices, farmers were suspicious and reluctant to try it.  

According to Lin Xiangzhi, farmers in Bingzi Village in Songyuan City have followed farming practices passed down for generations. After the autumn harvest, the field residue, which includes straw, stubble, leaves and roots, is dug out to make the land look as clear as possible. Conservation tillage requires farmers to leave field residue to cover the land. Leaving fields this way goes against everything farmers were taught. “It makes the fields look messy from afar, and the farmers don’t want that,” Lin said.  

To persuade farmers in the village to try conservation tillage, Lin promised them that if production per hectare dropped below 5,000 kilograms, an average yield for the area, he would compensate farmers himself. This pledge persuaded some farmers to start conservation tillage in 2015. In 2015, conservation tillage was used on 180 hectares in Bingzi, and the following year, the corn harvest reached 6,750 kilograms per hectare.  

By 2018, conservation tillage was in wide use. In 2021, corn production in Bingzi had almost doubled, reaching nearly 10,000 kilograms per hectare.  

But in the wider region of northeastern China, conservation tillage is unlikely to have such a dramatic effect. “In the long run, conservation tillage can improve soil quality and organic matter content, but in the beginning, it’s probably only enough to produce around 90 percent of average yields in the past,” Wang Jingkuan said.  

There are plans and programs to promote the protection and sustainable use of black soil land. In July 2017, several ministries issued the Outline of the Northeast Black Soil Land Protection Plan (2017-2030), which clarified that 250 million mu (170,000 square kilometers) of black soil land should be protected in northeastern China by 2030. The Implementation Plan for the National Black Soil Land Protection Project (2021-2025) issued in 2021 proposes that 100 million mu (70,000 square kilometers) of black soil arable land should be protected and utilized from 2021 to 2025. This means using measures such as conservation tillage.  

But executing sustainable soil management practices on the ground is difficult. It is not easy to motivate farmers. Liu Jie said that the implementation of the household contract responsibility system for over 40 years, where farmers are allotted and manage their own plots, did increase productivity and rural prosperity. However, as far as the protection and utilization of black soil land is concerned, the system has drawbacks.  

According to researcher Zhang Xudong, farmers still do not own the land they farm under the system. They are more concerned about whether they can see quick returns, rather than the long-term sustainable use of the land.  

“Farmers quit practicing new techniques if annual production and income plateau. Only when they see increased production and income will they truly accept new techniques,” researcher Guan Yixin said. “So since 2018, we developed conservation tillage techniques to ensure high yields.” Guan and his team are working on upgrading the Lishu Model. “We expect to increase production and income in all different scenarios,” Guan said.  

Zheng Tiezhi, deputy director of the Jilin Provincial Agricultural Mechanization Management Center, has been in charge of promoting conservation tillage in Jilin Province since 2006. Zheng said that if farmers do not pay attention or take the initiative to master new technologies, it will be hard to popularize conservation tillage and other black soil land protection measures.  

Zheng added that local authorities attach great importance to banning the burning of stubble that causes air pollution.  

“Village officials just do the easiest thing. They remove field residue and have it sent it away [for disposal], and this prevents us from promoting conservation by retaining greater field residue cover on the surface of the soil.” 

Rice harvesting in Liaoyuan, Jilin Province in October 2017

Legislation Accelerated 
Since 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping has visited northeastern China three times, addressing the need to protect the country’s black soil resources. In July 2020, Xi visited Lishu County and pointed out that “effective measures should be taken to effectively protect and make good use of the black soil land, the ‘giant panda of cultivated land,’ so that it will benefit the people forever.”  

The central government has passed legislation on land administration, farmland protection, soil pollution prevention and soil and water conservation. In 2018, Jilin Province formulated the “Jilin Province Black Land Protection Regulations,” China’s first to specifically target black soil. Heilongjiang Province passed a similar regulation in December 2021. In Zhang Xingyi’s view, however, they have no clear or specific provisions. He called for a national law to ensure black soil protection projects are actually implemented.  

During the two sessions in March 2021, Guo Naishuo, a deputy to the National People’s Congress and vice chairman of the Jilin Provincial People’s Political Consultative Conference, said existing laws and norms related to black soil protection were mostly scattered among different levels and fields and proposed setting up a national law, which will finally come into effect in August.  

In an article in the Science and Technology Daily on June 28, Yue Zhongming, director of the Economic Law Department of the Legislative Affairs Commission of the NPC, stressed that the new Black Soil Protection Law provides a basis for financial and administrative support for its protection and people will be punished if they damage it.  

Zhang Xingyi cautioned the law does not go far enough. “It’s too soft. For example, Item 30 stipulates that ‘Agricultural producers and operators who cannot fulfill their obligations to protect black soil land and still can’t correct it after they’re educated on their mistakes may not be granted subsidies for farmland protection,’” he said. “This penalty isn’t enough. There should be more rigid measures, such as withdrawal of the right to use the farmland.”  

In Wang Jingkuan’s view, the central government should increase subsidies to local governments in northeastern China.  

“If they don’t increase subsidies and support for local governments, and if northeast China isn’t compensated for the development opportunities it loses due to continuing food production, black soil land protection won’t be sustainable,” Wang Jingkuan said.  

Wang Jingkuan of Shenyang Agricultural University believes more needs to be done, and quickly. 

“As soil quality indicators including thickness and organic matter decline, there will be problems with agricultural production if the black soil goes unprotected or those indicators do not improve from now on,” he said.