China's soil quality issues matter to everyone (commentary)

China's soil quality issues matter to everyone (commentary)

SEVERAL years ago, following a trip to Chicago, Ill., I wrote about my family's visit to the Field Museum and my reaction to a wall plaque included in the museum's Underground Adventure exhibit.

What caught my attention was the following statement:

"Using only 7% of the Earth's farmable land, China feeds 22% of the world's population! Some Chinese farmers have learned how to care for the soil to make it productive while conserving it for future generations."

That statement nagged at me; I was troubled (and still am) that the Field Museum would make such an assertion.

My response included the following observations about the underlying inferences, namely that the museum was characterizing China as an idealized model of agriculture, which suggested that U.S. agriculture is going down the wrong track, i.e., that American farmers have neither learned nor desire to care for the soil, and as a result, we are failing at feeding ourselves.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, China and other countries heavily depend on U.S. food and agricultural exports.

The inferences are just plain wrong and misrepresent reality. For example, I cited a 2009 U.S. Department of Agriculture report, "China's Ongoing Agricultural Modernization: Challenges Remain After 30 Years of Reform," that says:

"To boost domestic food production as well as employ its large rural population, China has stressed land resources by farming steep hillsides and areas that other more land-abundant countries do not farm, creating soil erosion problems. Land has also been degraded by intensive chemical applications and by rarely leaving land out of production to 'rest.' ... Uncertainty over their long-term rights to the land, however, dulls farmers' incentives to make long-term productivity-improving investments and rely more heavily on short-term productivity measures such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides."

With that background in mind, it all came full circle for me in recent weeks after I read the headline: "State Secret Revealed: Toxins Taint One-Fifth of China Farmland."

China, by its own admission, has some serious problems.

Based on nine years of soil surveys, China's Environmental Protection Ministry and the Land & Resource Ministry have reported that nearly 20% of the country's farmland is contaminated by toxic metals.

The Chinese government indicated that the contamination likely stems from both industrial growth and misuse of farm chemicals (emphasis mine) and further declared, "The overall condition of Chinese soil allows no optimism."

Therefore, the Field Museum's declaration that "Chinese farmers have learned how to care for the soil to make it productive while conserving it for future generations" is even further off the mark than we knew.

None of this is intended to be a victory lap. (Admittedly, though, there is a part of me that revels a little in cheering for the home team.) Sure, the Field Museum's pretentious, indirect criticism of U.S. agriculture is completely unfounded, and it's especially humiliating for such a well-regarded museum, but it goes beyond that.

The real purpose of this discussion is to draw attention to a highly significant revelation. Taking land out of production is going in the wrong direction. China needs increased output more than ever to feed its people. To rectify some of the potential shortfall, global agriculture will need to speed up — not slow down — productivity and efficiency gains to feed an ever-increasing number of people.

Despite the Field Museum's suggestion to the contrary, keep in mind that the U.S. serves as the world's primary agricultural backstop.

So, given China's large population and the global connectedness of the agriculture industry, China's soil toxicity affects us all, especially here at home.

Whatever the outcome, you can be sure that it matters, because if it happens somewhere (especially China), that global connectivity means it matters everywhere.

*Dr. Nevil C. Speer is with Western Kentucky University and serves on the board of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, a national organization devoted to engaging livestock producers and livestock health professionals in developing solutions for issues in the livestock industry.

Volume:86 Issue:19

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