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Tackling climate change: agriculture requires better soil protection

ZHANG FEINAN | 2022-10-20 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

The scene of rice harvesting at a farm in Heilongjiang Province, northeast China   Photo: Xu Congjun/CNS

Today, agriculture has been inevitably integrated into the torrent of modernization. Arming agriculture with modern production technology has always been the most important path to agricultural modernization. The power of science and technology to transform agriculture to reduce impacts of climate change is truly amazing: With the help of artificial rainfall, artificial fertilizers and agrochemistry, Egypt is growing early maturing potatoes on a large scale in the sandy soil of the West bank of the Nile River. Everything works like an assembly line, as large-scale farming equipment and huge irrigation pipes have minimized the impacts of drought and heat on the crop in the utmost sense. So how does agriculture respond to climate change? How does climate change affect agriculture? Can agriculture offset the impacts of climate change through continued scientific and technological innovation? These are questions worth pondering.

Backfire from the environment

Climate change is a major challenge for all agricultural regions. Examples can be seen from soil salinity and water pollution in Iowa, the US, to the risk of groundwater depletion facing the early-maturing potatoes in Egypt. The frequent recurrence of floods and high temperatures in many places means that climate change has had certain substantial side-effects. Examples from the US and Egypt show that large-scale mechanization in agriculture fall short of consistently coping with climate change and other environmental crisis. Given the decline of the agricultural population, overly low agricultural income, excessive use of chemical fertilizers, frequent replacement of seeds, deterioration of soil quality, and water resource shortages, environmental problems keep arising. 

These problems are closely interlocked. It is unrealistic to merely pin hopes on new varieties of rice, corn, and soybeans and expect them to withstand floods, droughts, or the increasingly toxic mixtures of pesticides. Short-lived successes are often followed by a backfire from more severe environmental problems.

Tackling climate change 

For modern agriculture, tackling climate change means not just reducing carbon emissions through technological means. Agriculture faces great complexity in dealing with climate change and the situation cannot be resolved by reducing carbon emissions alone. In a word, agriculture should pay attention to three aspects in coping with climate change.

The first aspect is the response to extreme weather, such as heavy rainfall, and insect-borne diseases that are likely caused by climate change through the effective improvement of soil quality. International experience has confirmed that high-quality soil can better retain and conserve water, so as to resist climate extremes. Rich microbial systems can also ensure that crops are more resistant to insects and less pesticide reliant. The Great Northern Wilderness (Beidahuang) of Northeast regions in China has become a pioneer in arable land protection. The rotating tillage system existed as early as half a century ago in its farming regions. The concept of protecting black soil (fertile topsoil rich in useful and nutritious micro-nutrients) has been deeply rooted in the minds of local people, and relatively rich experience in black soil protection has been accumulated. Soil protection is a systematic project with great complexity and improving soil quality cannot be realized in one stroke, which necessitates support from other factors aside from technology, such as farming modes and social concepts. 

The second step is to rethink modes of farming. Currently, large-scale mechanization is indeed the general trend today, which is also necessary. It is unrealistic to give up fertilizers and pesticides completely. If farming is conducted according to purely green and organic concepts, only intensive farming methods with small farming households as the basic unit can be adopted. However, this undoubtedly requires a massive labor force. Since there are less and less agricultural practitioners, with a low income earned from agriculture, intensive farming lacks the conditions for its realization. Improving soil quality to achieve a more sustainable form of agriculture may mean reduced yields within a few years due to less dependence on fertilizer and pesticides, which makes it difficult to see profit in the short term and unaffordable and unsustainable for small farming households. This is the bottleneck that currently restricts the development of green organic agriculture.

The third aspect is about changing ideas, which involves changing the public’s understandings of modern, green, and organic agriculture. For example, many media reports talk about 100% straw returning with a proud gesture, as if it is a victory for circular agriculture. But in fact, for straw returning to the field, it is not a case of the more, the better. Some agricultural experts have pointed out after years’ trial that the best straw returning rate is about 60%. New techniques have been developed to allow straw to be pulverized on top of the soil and returned to the field, to ensure that it can fully decompose into organic matter. Completely forbidding straw burning would help reduce air pollution, but it would have a strong side-effect on soil and crops. Without burning, the worm ovum will remain alive in the soil, and over time harmful fungus will also spread, which means that next year planting will require more and stronger pesticides. The “silent spring” may arrive at any time, and public knowledge of environmental protection, especially of agriculture, should keep pace with the times.

An opportunity for change

People’s understandings of agricultural modernization still linger with large mechanized production scenarios. When one imagines a vast expanse of fields where computer programs are operated by only one person with limited harvesting equipment, its brings the same wonder and excitement as the steam engine era did two hundred years ago, when excited people stood in front of a factory of smoke. 

However, as time has passed, mankind has spent a great deal of energy and money to alter the serious consequences of “billowing smoke.” Is it also possible to foresee a future where, if we do not change, we will have to make the same efforts to improve the soil, water, and other elements on which we depend? From this point of view, climate change, low carbon emission reduction, and green organic approaches to agriculture, offer an opportunity for change. On the basis of ensuring food security, more attention should be paid to the protection of soil, and the foundation of agriculture.

Zhang Feinan is an associate professor from the Institute of Sociology at Heilongjiang Academy of Social Sciences.

Edited by BAI LE