But the expansion of farmland has come at the expense of millions of hectares of forest, grassland and wetlands, and the increasing exposure to wind and rain has led to erosion. In the 1950s, the soil was so rich “a pair of chopsticks would sprout in it,” locals said. Now the organic matter in the soil has fallen by as much as 75%, and in some areas, the black soil layer is decreasing by 1 to 2 millimeters a year.
Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences estimate that soybean production will fall by 40% to 60% and corn would barely grow in the region if — in the most extreme scenario — all its black soil is stripped away, no matter how much fertilizer is used.
Against the backdrop of climate change, global trade disputes and, now, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Beijing has intensified its focus on food security, including efforts to protect the country’s most precious soil. By 2025, China plans to improve the organic matter in nearly 6.7 million hectares of black soil by 10%. It’s a good start, but would still be well below the levels enjoyed in the 1950s.