27 April 2023

“China must change direction in its anti-desertification strategy”


The actions promoted in China in the 21st century have reportedly produced limited benefits, a recent study finds. Among other things, Beijing’s “Grain for Green” plan has decreased the incomes of farmers and herders. Other natural factors have mainly weighed on land regeneration

by Matteo Cavallito


The Grain for Green plan, launched in China at the turn of the century with the aim of combating desertification, reportedly produced modest results ultimately leading to a negative economic balance. This is supported by a study by a team of researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing published in the journal Nature.

Improved fertilization techniques and, paradoxically, rising temperatures associated with climate change “are relatively strong drivers of vegetation rehabilitation from 2001-2020 in the China’s desertification-prone region (DPR),” the research states. In addition, “the declines in the direct incomes of farmers and herders caused by ecological practices exceed the subsidies provided by governments.”

The Grain for Green plan in China

Stretching from Central Asia to northeast China, the region prone to desertification covers an area of more than 1.2 million square kilometers. Currently, more than 60 percent of this area is managed under traditional pastoral and agricultural systems, and the impacts of desertification on agriculture and grazing affect the lives of more than 47.9 million people. Under the Grain for Green program, farmers are paid to plant trees on their soils while also receiving degraded land for restoration.

Grain-for-green has also been joined since 2011 by the exclusion of significant portions of land from grazing. Since 2002, investments to support these practices have exceeded 780 billion yuan, about $112 billion.

However, the researchers explain, “the benefits of these ambitious practices and investments for combating desertification remains unclear.” The latest study quantified vegetation responses to temperature variability using statistical models combined with remote sensing methods. The researchers also estimated future plant growth based on climate scenarios.

The results

The analyses revealed that 63% of the restored lands involved in the government plan contributed positively to the increase in vegetation cover from 2000 onward. At the same time, 14% showed negative effects. The authors then calculated the impact on vegetation growth of other factors such as climate and fertilization practices. By eliminating these variables, the study releases a final estimate of the contribution of the plan tinitiatives .

“In total, the joint contribution of both analyzed ecological practices to fractional vegetation coverage (Grain for Green and grazing exclusion, ed.) increases in the desertification-prone region was only 13.07%,” the study states.

Also according to the research, the initiatives would have come at a significant cost in terms of food security. Generating average grain and meat production losses of 13.4 percent and 24.2 percent from 2001 to 2020, respectively.

Perdite di produzione di cereali e carne causate dalle restrizioni sui terreni disponibili a seguito dell'iniziativa grain-for-green e della strategia di esclusione del pascolo nella regione a rischio desertificazione in Cina. Poiché queste due pratiche sono state avviate rispettivamente dal 2001 e dal 2011 le perdite di produzione di cereali e di carne sono state stimate per i periodi simultanei. Fonte: Wang, X., Ge, Q., Geng, X. et al. Unintended consequences of combating desertification in China. Nat Commun 14, 1139 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-023-36835-z Open Access Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Grain and meat production losses (shown by the dotted box in the figure) caused by restrictions on available lands put in place by the “grain-for-green” and grazing exclusion practices in the desertification-prone region. Because these two practices have been extensively launched since 2001 and 2011, respectively, the grain and meat production losses were estimated for the simultaneous periods. Source: Wang, X., Ge, Q., Geng, X. et al. Unintended consequences of combating desertification in China. Nat Commun 14, 1139 (2023). Open Access Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

New protection strategies needed

Currently, the authors write, “unlike other regions of the world, the Grain for Green and grazing exclusion practices currently carried out in China may not be highly effective against desertification.” The increase in vegetation has been less than expected, and the fences erected around the exclusion zones have restricted the natural migration of some animal species while also causing grazing pressure to grow in vacant areas.

In short, “China’s current desertification-combating programmes need to be improved,” considering that China has already benefited for decades from factors such as increased rainfall and improved agricultural techniques.

Therefore, it would be appropriate today to lift restrictions in some areas and to put Grain for Green alongside other practices such as the creation of cropland protection belts, agricultural water conservation and grazing rotation. Within this framework, the research concludes, there is a need to “maximize the benefits of both humans and the ecological environment and create positive synergies to increase farmer and herder incomes, combat desertification and improve the ecological environment.”