National Geographic : 2013 May
Fertilized World 99 you were lucky to get three bowls of rice.” Liu grew up in the aftermath of China’s great famine, which lasted from 1959 to 1961 and killed an estimated 30 million people. Drought played a part, but the catastrophe was inflicted mainly by the whims of Chairman Mao. The Chinese leader’s Great Leap Forward collectiv- ized farming and forced peasants to turn their harvests over to a centralized bureaucracy. The famine passed, but scarcity continued until the late 1970s, when farmers regained control of their own harvests. “Within two years, almost overnight, food was in surplus,” recalls Deli Chen, who witnessed those re- forms as a boy in a small rice-growing village in Jiangsu Province. Chen is now a soil scientist at the University of Melbourne in Australia. Yet China’s newly entrepreneurial farmers ran into another barrier: the limits of their land. As the country’s population grew by an astounding 300 million people between 1970 and 1990, Chi- na’s traditional agriculture struggled to keep up. Song Linyuan, an elderly but spry farmer in a village northwest of Nanjing, recalls how he once kept his 1.3 acres of cropland as fertile as pos- sible, composting household waste and spread- ing manure from his pigs and chickens. In all, his efforts added perhaps a hundred pounds of To grow plentiful food crops, farms need more nitrogen than naturally occurs in the soil. Fertilizer runoff is minimized on this Wisconsin farm by planting strips of alfalfa between corn and soybeans. Dan Charles is NPR’s food and agriculture correspondent. Peter Essick frequently photographs the impact of development on our environment.