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Potatoes chip in to restrict desert growth


Yang Wanli , Yuan Hui
Monday 06 June 2022 11:28 BST
Potatoes are planted at a farm in the Kubuqi Desert, Inner Mongolia autonomous region
Potatoes are planted at a farm in the Kubuqi Desert, Inner Mongolia autonomous region (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

As they enjoy a bag of potato chips or eat fries at a fast-food outlet, few people are likely to know where the raw materials for the popular snacks originate when they are produced in China.

When they learn that the answer is the desert, many are surprised.

Inner Mongolia autonomous region in North China has the largest expanse of desertified and sandy land in the country, so it faces a severe threat of desertification. Now, though, potatoes are helping to turn the sand into an oasis of greenery.

The region’s battle with sand is a reflection of China’s determination to protect the environment, and also the catalyst for innovative measures to restore the fragile desert eco-system.

Over many years the country has taken a number of steps to bring its deserts under control. In 1978 an anti-desertification drive began in North China to plant a massive wall of trees, which many call the Green Great Wall, along the border with the Gobi Desert to significantly contain its expansion.

From 2016 to 2020 work in the region prevented and controlled the desertification of an average 3,089 square miles a year, effectively curbing the spread of local deserts, the regional forestry department says.

“About five years ago when I came here there were no plants, only the Mu Us Desert stretching as far as the eye could see,” said Chen Xiliang, potato production team leader for Lay’s, a US potato snacks company that buys produce from his co-operative potato farm in Ordos, Inner Mongolia.

As the site of two of China’s biggest deserts, the Mu Us and the Kubuqi, Ordos introduced potatoes as a major measure to restore the sandy land. Chen was among the pioneers when the project began in 2018.

“The Mu Us is unique,” Chen said. “It has no industrial pollution, and we also found rich underground water there. Both are promising factors for the success of large-scale potato planting.”

To ensure that the crops are protected effectively, Chen spends six to seven months in the field every year, only visiting his family in downtown Ordos during the other months. On his daily patrols around the fields he walks an average of 20,000 steps.

With the help of a number of agricultural experts, Chen and his team conducted dozens of experiments and changed planting techniques many times. Eventually they were able to expand operations from one small experimental potato field and introduce several large-scale cultivation units.

In 2019 Chen’s farm expanded to 2,000 hectares, resulting in a crop big enough to ensure production of potato products worth 60 million yuan (£7.2 million) a year.

Xu Youdong, an official with the Ordos agriculture and animal husbandry bureau, said: “If you look at an aerial photo of Ordos you will see some huge green circles in the desert. Some people joke that they are mysterious circles left by extra-terrestrials, but in fact they are our potato fields.”

By 2020 Ordos was home to potato fields covering 51.2 square miles that produced 300,000 metric tonnes of the crop a year, according to the city’s statistics bureau.

“Potatoes not only bring wealth to local people, but also an oasis,” Chen said. “When my children grow up, they will proudly see the green miracle sparked by their father’s efforts.”

Previously published on

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