A new “Law on the Protection of Black Soil” will take effect on 1 August 2022 . The law aims to coordinate policies on black soil protection under the overarching objective of achieving food security and a balanced ecosystem and has already been adopted on 24 June 2022 through the Standing Committee of the 13th National People’s Congress.
According to the new law, black soil is defined as “cultivated land with black or dark black humus topsoil layers, good traits and high fertility”. Furthermore, it refers specifically to those fields in “the relevant areas of Heilongjiang Province, Jilin Province, Liaoning Province, and Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region” (art. 2). The high content of organic matter makes black soil the soil type which facilitates the most productive agriculture. The area classified as black soil in Northeastern China amounts to 70,200 km²  and it is the production site of about one quarter of China’s grain output .
Over the last decades, however, soil fertility is declining. This is also displayed in decreasing yields, which cannot be compensated for with increasing amounts of synthetic fertilizer . The impact on national grain production capacity has been recognized by the authorities and the protection of the black soil resources in Northeastern China has been explicitly mentioned in the 14th-Five-Year-Plan (2021-2025) released in January 2022: As part of the establishment of approx. 18.3 million ha of “high-standard farmland”, approx. 9.3 million ha are supposed to be preserved through black-soil conservation farming in Northeastern China .
This is specified by the new law, which states that black soil which meets the criteria mentioned above is to be protected with regard to its functions and systematically restored – including heavily degraded black soils if restoration is possible by any means. The scope of use of this fertile soil is restricted to the production of agricultural goods (grain, oil crops, sugar crops, vegetables), whereas on soil of the highest quality grain production has to be prioritized (art. 5).
Besides the restoration of degraded black soils, the law calls for enhancing and protecting soil fertility in the long term by a number of measures (arts. 12-14). Measures to improve soil quality include crop rotation, conservation tillage, straw mulching, reduction of chemical fertilizer and mulch film application and promotion of organic fertilizers (art. 13). Furthermore, the soil erosion should be tackled by establishing long-term shelter forests along roads and ditches to prevent desertification (art. 14). However, it is emphasized that measures need to be adjusted and chosen according to local conditions.
Furthermore, research by scientific and in general higher learning institutions on the protection of black soils is going to be strengthened and international cooperation and exchange on black soil protection is explicitly supported by the state (art. 11).
In order to guarantee that measures are going to be implemented, the law assigns responsibility to draft black soil protection policies with concrete measures to county or province level authorities. The local governments are going to be held accountable for the condition of black soils in their administrative areas (art. 6). Authorities on township and village level are requested to assist and promote the implementation of measures. The provincial or county-level departments for agriculture and rural affairs are requested to compile black soil protection plans with concrete protection measures which should also be linked to land spatial planning (art. 10).
The implementation of the law on different levels is directly facilitated by promotion (awards for units and individuals, role model function of state farms), compensation and subsidies (guaranteed long-term incentive and subsidy mechanism), and punishments in case of violation. The latter corresponds to the objectives stated by the law and defines punishments for various violations such as illegal construction on agricultural land, trading of black soil, causing soil pollution or refusal to comply with other parts of the law (arts. 29-37).
As a basis for monitoring the implementation of the law, soil conditions are to be assessed in a comprehensive land survey and shared in a monitoring network database. Organized by the agricultural, rural and water administration departments under the State Council, the conduction of land surveys is stipulated (art. 9).
The Necessity of Legislative Protection of Soils in China
In recent years, the amount of environmental legislation in China is growing. So far, soil protection is regulated by the Law on Water and Soil Conservation and the Law on Prevention and Control of Soil Contamination. This also shows that with regard to the pollution of agricultural soils, the main focus so far lies on the threat of soil contamination. Studies have shown that at least 19.4 percent of agricultural soils in China are contaminated, mainly through atmospheric deposition related to coal combustion and other industrial processes.
The other negative impact factor for soil quality is soil erosion, mainly through water and accelerated through land use change . The new law tackles especially this factor, which causes great loss of agricultural soil and has hardly been addressed by other laws. Besides these regulations which directly address soils, reforms of the Chinese land system also affect soil resources. Under the objective of keeping arable land under production, the transfer of land management rights to a third party are facilitated. This might lead to more short-term and profit-oriented land use, adversely affecting soil fertility.
The policy instruments introduced by the new law to improve the protection of Chinese black soils have a rather directive character, focussing more on promoting better management practices than on punishing the violation of the law. Whether or not the new regulations will successfully preserve and increase China’s black soil resources will depend on how the law is going to be translated and implemented by county-level policies.
However, since food security moved higher up the Chinese agenda, the two opposing interests of increasing agricultural outputs and protecting soil resources need to be balanced. In this light, the adoption of a soil protection law also results from the acknowledgement that fertile soil is a non-renewable resource and therefore cannot be compensated for by any other means. A law specifically for protecting the most fertile soil type is an important step towards a sustainable soil use to ensure a continuation of food production in future generations.
-  Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Black Land (中华人民共和国黑土地保护法) (Original in Chinese): 中华人民共和国黑土地保护法_滚动新闻_中国政府网 (www.gov.cn), (accessed 21 July 2022)
-  Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) (2021): 东北黑土地白皮书https://www.cas.cn/zt/kjzt/htlc/yw/202107/W020210714418584895253.pdf, (accessed 21 July 2022)
-  Explanations on the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Black Land (Draft) (Original in Chinese): 关于《中华人民共和国黑土地保护法（草案）》的说明_中国人大网 (npc.gov.cn), from 20 Dec 2021 (accessed 20 July 2022)
-  Law of the People’s Republic of China on Prevention and Control of Soil Contamination (English version): https://english.mee.gov.cn/Resources/laws/environmental_laws/202011/t20201113_807786.shtml, (accessed 21 July 2022)
-  14th-Five-Year-Plan, translated: https://cset.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/t0284_14th_Five_Year_Plan_EN.pdf, (accessed 20 July 2022)
-  Wang et al. (2020): Spatial and temporal variability of soil erosion in the black soil region of Northeast China from 2000 to 2015. In: Environmental Monitoring Assessment 192:370
-  Siebert, Lea (2022): Status Quo of Agricultural Soil Contamination in China from a European Perspective, DCZ publication