How is China turning deserts into arable lands?

Friday, April 8th, 2022

China has a total land area of 3.5 million square miles, but only 12% of that land is arable. Researchers there claim to have developed a novel technology that can convert desert to arable land:

The technology developed by the researchers at Chongqing Jiaotong University involves a paste made from plant cellulose, that can greatly improve the ability of desert sands to hold water, minerals, air, microbes, and nutrients essential for plant growth.

This paste was applied to a sandy 1.6-hectare plot in the Ulan Buh Desert, in the Mongolian Autonomous Region. Over time, the plot was transformed into fertile cropland capable of producing tomatoes, rice, watermelon, sunflowers, and corn.

Professor Yang Qingguo, of Jiaotong University, explained that “The costs of artificial materials and machines for transforming sand into the soil is lower compared with controlled environmental agriculture and reclamation”

According to the Chinese researchers, the plants grown in the sandy plot delivered higher crop yields, using the same amount of water needed for growing crops in normally arable soils. Moreover, the amount of fertilizer needed to produce the crops was lower than what is generally required for the growth of vegetables in other soils.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    Do I hear someone chanting “Lysenko”?

  2. Jason Gardner says:

    It makes sense. In home gardening I use seed starting mix that’s just peat moss and some volcanic rock called perlite. Aside from the perlite its just organic material. Tomatoes grow fine in it. So yeah you could just take a bunch of grass clippings and dump them in the desert and rejuvenate it….eventually.

  3. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    …which is in fact a very old idea, eg hugelkultur. Using woody plant matter as a substrate under a protective soil/mineral layer for more efficient growing, due to it’s ability to store moisture.

  4. Gavin Longmuir says:

    The basic issue in most deserts is the lack of availability of water. Improving the soil makes sense once sufficient water supply has been assured.

    Of course, in China, a society could plan & build massive water diversion schemes without having to waste decades on studies on the potential impact on the snail darter. California can support its population today because an earlier generation was able to build water diversion schemes like the Cal Canal. But that was then, and this is now.

  5. Kunning Drueger says:

    So I find this interesting for a number of reasons. I think there’s more going on than spraying liquified cardboard. As Gavin Longmuir implies, a desert is a region with low/no available moisture. This could be the archetypal Mojave type desert, but it could also be Antarctica or Missouri near Brandtson (excellent if challenging hiking). So even if magic chinaman paste works, they’re going to need loads of water, which is something they do not have. China has been playing a massive geo-physical shell game with its available water for decades.

    St. John brings up a really cool technique (I didn’t know the name he used, I learned of it as the “garden of Eden” method” using wood detritus to create and maintain growing areas. I use it exclusively on the ground plots, and I use full on logs as the base layer in all raised and keyhole beds. I also compost 100% of food waste (meat & bone included) and use leaf mass and small diameter wood detritus as my “gray balance.” I can cycle the food waste of a single family from a whole year in a single, 75 gallon bin, and it is never more than 3/4 full.

    If anyone can find and post the actual components of their paste, I’d greatly appreciate it.

  6. Bruce says:

    Humans generally turn arable land into deserts. I wonder how much of the Gobi and Sahara were some kind of Ice Age hunter-gatherer-rancher overgrazing equivalent to the US 1930′s Dust Bowl.

  7. Adept says:

    Kunning Drueger,

    The technique is reviewed in more detail here:

    The active ingredient appears to be a “specially modified sodium carboxymethyl cellulosic material.” Sodium carboxymethyl cellulose is produced from plain cellulose, so it’s very cheap and abundant.

    The authors have also mentioned that it’s in a water-based paste. So, unless they’ve left something out, it should be easy enough to recreate their formula in your own home. Take sodium carboxymethyl cellulose, add water until you get a dilute paste, and mix with sand. See what happens.

    (I realize that they claim to be using a modified version of sodium carboxymethyl cellulose — but it’s unlikely to be very different from the plain vanilla grades that are available everywhere.)

    The authors claim that adding this paste modifies the surface chemistry of sand grains, forcing them to stick together and hold moisture, much as soil does. The authors also claim that the paste only needs to be added once; if modified sand is used for planting, dead roots and plant material will further constrain the treated sand, making it even more soil-like.

    This could be a interesting innovation, and a damned simple one in retrospect!

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