Ecologically asynchronous agricultural practice erodes sustainability of the Loess Plateau of China

Ecologically asynchronous agricultural practice erodes sustainability of the Loess Plateau of China
1, State Key Laboratory of Earth Surface Processes and Resource Ecology and Center for Landscape Ecology and Sustainability Science, Beijing Normal University, Beijing 100875 China
2, School of Life Sciences & Global Institute of Sustainability, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona 85287 USA
3, Sino-US Center for Conservation, Energy, and Sustainability Science, Inner Mongolia University, Hohhot 010021 China
4, School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut 06511 USA
Sustainability of agricultural landscapes depends largely on land-use practices. As one of the most productive and widespread agricultural soils, loess is often deep and easily eroded, posing grand challenges for environmental sustainability around the world. One prime example is the Loess Plateau of China, which has been cultivated for more than 7500 years. Based on long-term data sets, this study demonstrates that the dominant agricultural practice, winter wheat cropping, continues to be the primary driver for the massive soil erosion and landscape modifications on the Loess Plateau. This traditional farming system is asynchronous with the dynamic rhythm between natural vegetation and climate in the region. In particular, the long summer fallow period for winter wheat fields is concurrent with the heavy-rainstorm season, which greatly accelerates soil erosion. Our finding indicates that common land-use practices that have lasted for thousands of years in China are not environmentally sustainable. Agriculture in this region has relied primarily on the continuous “mining” of the soil for the past several thousand years but does not have a one-thousand-year future because of myriad environmental and socioeconomic factors associated with soil erosion. To contain soil erosion and promote sustainability on the Loess Plateau, therefore, a change in the agricultural regime is needed to make sure that current and future agricultural practices follow the vegetation–climate rhythm. In addition, to achieve environmental, economic, and social sustainability in this region, multifunctional land-use planning is required to increase landscape diversity and functions (e.g., proper arrangement of crop fields, orchards, and protected areas).
Published in Ecological Applications, 20(4), 2010, pp. 1126–1135