How Dry We Are: What's "Desertification" and Why Should You Care?

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The Associated Press has a great story today about the changing landscape in China. Not long ago, China was converting massive tracts of land into productive farmland with some of the most ambitious irrigation programs ever undertaken on the planet. They invested $9 billion to try to halt the advance of the Asian deserts. (Remember the controversial damming of the Yangtze River just a few years ago?)

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According to AP, China is giving up and allowing the land to revert to desert: "over-farming has drawn down the water table so low that desert is overtaking farmland. Authorities have ordered farmers here in Gansu province to vacate their properties over the next 3 1/2 years, and will replace 20 villages with newly planted grass in a final effort to halt the advance of the Tengger and Badain Jaran deserts."

Deserts now cover one-third of the country and continue to grow because of overgrazing, deforestation, urban sprawl and droughts; dust from China clouds the skies of South Korea and has been linked to respiratory problems in California. Reservoirs have dried up and farmers dug wells, which caused the water table to drop and the soil became contaminated with salt.

The recent melamine additive controversy showed that US pet and livestock feed products are likely to contain elements from most anywhere in the world. And the AP story claims that, worldwide, grain production slipped from 432 million tons in 1998 to 422 million tons in 2006 because of desertification. The AP story speculates that eventually China will need to buy a massive 30-50 million tons of grain a year on the world market.

We have seen already what an impact China's purchasing power has on global commodities like steel and oil. Imagine both the impact of a fragile environment on Chinese herbal and feed additives, and the cost factor of China buying in such huge quantities on the global grain futures market.

Farmers (or farming corporations) will always plant for the market and if China needs wheat or soybeans, and is willing to pay the price, farmers will grow those crops instead of the oats and hay that our horses might need. Add the impact of US farmers allegedly switching hayfields to cornfields to make ethanol fuel and you see that the US horse industry needs to pay attention to the weather...all over the world.

Desertification has an impact not only on hay and grain supply and price but on our own respiratory health and that of our horses. And the effects may be much more far-reaching than that.

The United Nations has launched a special web site to educate people like you and me on the problems of drought and desertificaiton. Visit it at http://www.unccd.int/

Photo courtesy of United Nations.

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