Published by EH.NET (June 2001)

Peter H. Lindert, Shifting Ground: The Changing Agricultural Soils of China

and Indonesia. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000. xii + 351 pp. $45 (cloth),

ISBN: 0-262-12227-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by D. Gale Johnson, Department of Economics, University of

Chicago, Emeritus.

The generally accepted opinion is that a large percentage of the world’s

agricultural land is degraded and is being further degraded year by year. The

World Map of the Status of Human-Induced Soil Degradation produced by

the United Nations Environment Program in the late 1980s is a major source of

such an opinion. Peter Lindert argues, persuasively in my opinion, that the

basis for the conclusion that a large percentage of the world’s agricultural

land is degraded as a result of human action is wholly inadequate. The

evidence used to reach this conclusion is not derived from historical

comparisons of the status of agricultural lands but on a description of lands

at a particular moment in time. As Lindert writes, “It tries to measure

changes over time in the absence of data over time” (p. 21).

Lindert (Professor of Economics and Director of the Agricultural History

Center at the University of California, Davis) utilizes data from soil surveys

in China and Indonesia. This data — from the world’s largest and fourth

largest countries (in terms of population) — has been available for decades.

These surveys cover a period of approximately half a century, from the 1930s

to the 1980s. The soil surveys provide measures of soil characteristics for a

given location at a given time. While the surveys are not identical in all

respects over time, there are many common elements — measures of the major

nutrients, of organic matter, alkalinity, acidity and the depth of the top


Such surveys exist in other countries, including the United States, but

apparently only Lindert has used them to provide a realistic picture of the

changes in the soils over time. Given the availability of such data, it is

surprising that it has not been used before to understand what has happened to

the quality of the world’s soils. The reason may be that it is an enormous

amount of work to effectively utilize the hundreds — thousands, probably —

of these surveys that exist and so far Lindert has been the only one willing

to make the required investment of time.

That erosion exists cannot be questioned. After all, the Yellow River didn’t

get its name by accident. But in much of the discussion of erosion, as well as

other aspects of soil degradation, it is seldom asked whether the erosion is

human induced — it tends to be merely assumed that it is. In addition, when

and where there is erosion, little or no evidence is provided as to whether or

not it occurs on farmland. Farmland, after all, constitutes a minority of the

world’s land. There can be many sources of the silt in rivers other than

farmland. Lindert directly addresses the issue of whether erosion has taken a

serious toll on the farmlands of two countries. As noted later, he finds no

evidence that the depth of the topsoil has declined over a period of half a

century in these two countries. One can hope that future estimates of soil

degradation, including the extent of soil erosion, will utilize the real

evidence that is available rather than speculating on the basis of models not

based on historical data.

Based on the comparisons of the soil surveys in China, Lindert concludes that

there have been positive and negative changes affecting the quality and

quantity of farmland. The negative factors have been declines in the nitrogen

and organic matter in the soils while the potassium and potash contents have

increased. The decline in nitrogen content of the soil seems to have little or

no negative effects on yield, however, since nitrogen can be and is added as


Perhaps the most striking conclusion is that the depth of the topsoil has not

diminished — erosion has not taken a toll on China’s soils. And the quantity

of farmland has apparently increased over the past half century, as recently

confirmed by the Chinese government, rather than decreasing significantly as

has been often claimed by Lester Brown, Vaclav Smil and others. Lindert

summarizes what has happened to soil quality in China: “The most reliable . .

. basic inference is that the overall soil quality did not decline between the

1950s and the 1980s” (p. 145). In fact, some of his estimates indicate a

modest increase in soil quality. Thus in a period of rapid change — the

creation of the communes, the period of the Great Famine, the Cultural

Revolution and the reforms of the late 1970s and early 1980s when the communes

were abolished and the household responsibility system emerged — the evidence

is very strong that the quality of the soil was not diminished.

In addition, Lindert finds no evidence that erosion of agricultural land in

Indonesia was a problem. This conclusion is based on two types of evidence —

the absence of a decline in the content of major nutrients in the soil and the

adjustment of the depth of topsoil data to account for certain problems in the

data for the early years. His overall estimate is that the average soil

chemical quality declined by 4 to nearly 6 percent. This decline was due

primarily to bringing new lands into cultivation in the outlying islands —

the soil quality index for the established agricultural areas in Java and

Madura may have increased by 10 percent. The area under cultivation more than

doubled between 1940 and 1990. If land is adjusted to the Javanese quality

level and adjustment is made for the small decline in average quality, the

increase in quality-adjusted land under cultivation during this period was

more than 75 percent.

To summarize the results presented in this very important book, Lindert shows

that for two of the most populous countries in the world farm people have

taken very good care of their land. Yes, erosion exists but careful analysis

is required to determine whether it is human induced and whether it affects

agricultural land. Lindert’s careful analysis supports two important

conclusions, though these conclusions are not stated explicitly by him. His

work confirms that “Farmers are as smart as the rest of us” and that “Farm

people of China and Indonesia have been good stewards of their land.” Studies

similar to this one should be made for other countries or areas for which soil

surveys exist over extended periods of time to determine whether farmers

elsewhere have been good stewards of their land. My expectation is that they

have been. I do not believe that the experiences in China and Indonesia were


D. Gale Johnson is the Eliakim Hastings Moore Distinguished Service Professor

of Economics Emeritus at the University of Chicago. He is the author of

World Agriculture in Disarray, revised edition 1991 and “Agricultural

Adjustment in China: Problems and Prospects,” Population and Development

Review, Vol. 26, No. 2, June 2000.