Book 5. Who are we? (2001)
Desertification has affected the lands of the Rostov Region1 (up to 50% of the Salesian Steppes), the Altai Territory (a third of the Kulunda Plain) and thirteen other regions within the Russian Federation. Altogether 6.5 million hectares of Russian farmland have now been taken over by blowing sands, the largest single segment being in the Caspian Lowlands, covering as much as 10% of their total area. The overall area of Russian farmland subject (either actually or potentially) to desertification approaches 50 million hectares.
According to agrochemical indicators, Russia’s agricultural lands are, on average, not very productive, especially outside the Chernozem Belt. The layer of topsoil does not contain a sufficient quantity of nutrients for proper cultivation:
nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, calcium, magnesium, mi-cronutrients (especially cobalt, molybdenum and zinc). At least a third of the farmlands have acidic soil, and soil con-taining low concentrations of available phosphorous and po-tassium amount to 30% and 10%, respectively.
Over 43% of arable lands have a low humus content; in 15% of them (45% outside the Chernozem Belt) the proportion is critical. More than 75% of the farmlands of the Kaluga, Smolensk, Astrakhan and Volgograd Regions,1 as well as the Republics of Kalmykia, Adygeya, Buryatia and Tuva are low in humus. Experts believe that, on average, with irregular and insufficient applications of organic fertiliser and improper cultivation practices, a significant depletion has taken place in Russia’s soil content. Humus levels have been reduced to a minimum — 3.5-5.0% of topsoil in the central Chernozem regions and only 1.3—1.5^ outside the Chernozem belt. Annual humus losses in farmland topsoil are pegged at o.6-0.7 tonnes per hectare (as much as 1 tonne per hectare in Chernozem areas). This means an annual nationwide loss of approximately 80 million tonnes.
It has been proved that there is almost a perfect linear re-lationship between the humus reserves in basic soil types and the productivity of major agricultural crops. A one-tonne- per-hectare increase in humus levels means an increase in average long-term productivity of cereal crops of 10-15 kg/ha. For a number of crops cultivated under various soil/climatic conditions, this amount corresponds to 30 kg of cereal crop units. For every i-centimetre decrease in humus depth in Chernozem topsoil under the influence of either natural or man-made factors (e.g., erosion), cereal crop productivity falls by 100 kg/ha.
Over the course of many years Russia’s soil resources have been extensively exploited'' by various means, and nutrients have often been eliminated through the harvesting process at a faster rate than they could be replenished.
Agricultural scientists warn that such extensive exploita-tion of the soil’s fertility will lead to an irreversible degrada-tion. Trends in overall cereal output are cited as evidence of this. The annual manure application required to maintain constant humus levels in the soil should amount to between 'extensively exploited — In Russian the term ‘extensive’ (ekstensivnoe) here re-fers specifically to using up more and more land resources, as opposed to increasing fertility on the lands already under cultivation.
7 and 15 tonnes per hectare. This means adding to the soil a minimum of 1 billion tonnes of organic fertiliser every year. Russia today employs only about 100-120 million tonnes, or approximately 10 times less than is required.
What is the current situation with regard to conservation of soil resources?
Centralised financing of soil-improvement projects has been completely cut off, and the scope of these projects has been drastically reduced. Financing now comes out of local budgets — since 1993 out of land taxes, with 30% of the conservation-programme expenses to be paid by land-users. As a result, from 1994 to the present all projects for applying peat-manure compost in non-Chernozem areas, as well as lime treatment of acidic soils, delivery of liming materials and bone-meal, and phosphate application have pretty well ceased on most Russian territory because local authorities do not have funds for carrying out agrochemical projects.
This has contributed to the failure of practically all com-prehensive federal soil-improvement and agricultural development programmes initiated by the Russian government and the Ministry of Agriculture and Food.
In view of the above, we can now speak of the escalating degradation of Russia’s topsoil, which threatens its ecological and food security, as well as its national security as a whole.