EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown, Janet Larsen, and Bernie Fischlowitz-Roberts

Part 1. Deserts Invading China: The National Costs of Failure

The fallout from the dust storms is social as well as economic. Millions of rural Chinese may be uprooted and forced to migrate eastward as the deserts claim their land. Wang Tao reports that desertification is already producing refugees in Gansu, Inner Mongolia, and Ningxia Provinces. A preliminary Asian Development Bank assessment of desertification in Gansu Province reports that 4,000 villages risk being overrun by drifting sands. 41

The U.S. Dust Bowl of the 1930s forced some 3 million “Okies” and other refugees to leave the land, many of them heading west from Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas to California. But the dust bowl forming in China is much larger than that in the United States, and during the 1930s the U.S. population was only 150 million—compared with China’s 1.3 billion. Whereas the U.S. migration was measured in the millions, China’s may measure in the tens of millions. And as a U.S. embassy report noted, “unfortunately, China’s 21st-century ‘Okies’ have no California to escape to—at least not in China.” 42

Not only are spreading deserts disrupting air travel, as noted earlier, but sand dunes are also encroaching on highways and railways. Along the railroad from Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, to Lanzhou in Gansu Province, stones can be seen piled in fences two or three feet high to serve as sand traps. These are designed to prevent the drifting sand from covering the railroad, much as highway departments in the United States use snow fences along highways to prevent drifting snow from disrupting road transportation. 43

The ecological deficits building in China suggest that not only will this nation continue to lose land to invading deserts, but that the loss will be greater each year. These expanding deserts affect every facet of life in China, including food production, transportation, and population distribution. As noted earlier, the government is planning to convert 10.5 million hectares of cropland to trees during this decade, which is roughly one tenth of China’s cropland.

Two other trends are also shrinking the cropland area. In addition to the planned conversion of cropland to trees, other low-productivity land is simply being abandoned. A combination of low productivity and a reduction in government grain support prices has eliminated any profit on the more marginal land, compelling many farmers to look for jobs off the land. Cropland is also being abandoned because it is covered by drifting sand or overrun by sand dunes. For example, an Asian Development Bank document reports that in one area of Gansu, 133,000 hectares of cropland have been abandoned to drifting sand. These three trends are combining to shrink China’s cropland base. 44

As rangeland turns to desert, the number of livestock that can be supported will diminish. In areas where cattle are being favored over sheep and goats, flocks of the latter will be substantially reduced. All in all, China’s pastoral economy and its animal population will likely shrink dramatically in the years ahead either because livestock numbers are reduced by policy as efforts to control desertification acquire momentum or because rangelands are simply overrun by deserts.

In the end, the desertification of China is diminishing the country’s food supply. As marginal cropland is systematically converted to trees or is abandoned for economic reasons, and as cropland and rangeland are abandoned to advancing deserts, the country’s agricultural land area is shrinking.

The loss of productive land to desertification, along with the depletion of aquifers and the diversion of irrigation water to cities and industry, makes it increasingly difficult to expand food production. These trends are combining with economic developments—including the lowering of grain support prices in recent years, the rising wages in off-farm employment that pull labor from agriculture, and the shift to more intensive cropping, such as vegetable production, to reduce China’s grain harvest.

After increasing nearly fivefold from 90 million tons in 1950 to 392 million tons in 1998, China’s grain production has dropped, falling to 338 million tons in 2001. (See Figure 1–1.) Even as China loses cropland, its grain consumption is rising by roughly 4 million tons each year as population expands and as people continue to use more grain-dependent livestock, poultry, and fish products. With some improvement in rainfall, the grain harvest could recover to 350 million tons in 2002. Even so, with consumption now approaching 390 million tons, this will make China’s third consecutive year with a shortfall of around 40 million tons. Thus far, this deficit has been filled by drawing down stocks. But if the deficit continues, China will be forced at some point in the not-too-distant future to turn to the world grain market. 45


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41. Wang, op. cit. note 6; Asian Development Bank, Technical Assistance to the People’s Republic of China For Optimizing Initiatives to Combat Desertification in Gansu Province (Manila, Philippines: June 2001).

42. “Grapes of Wrath in Inner Mongolia,” op. cit. note 4.

43. Ibid.

44. Asian Development Bank, op. cit. note 41.

45. Grain production in 1950 from U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), World Grain Database, unpublished printout; Figure 1–1 and current levels from USDA, Production, Supply, and Distribution, electronic database, updated 10 May 2002.


Copyright © 2002 Earth Policy Institute