Grassland degradation resulting from desertification often alters the carbon (C), nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) cycles within grassland ecosystems. To estimate the effects of desertification on the C, N, and P concentrations and C:N:P stoichiometry of plants and soil, we examined C, N, and P concentrations in plant tissues (leaves, roots and litter) and soil across five degrees of desertification in the desert grassland of Ningxia, China (control, light, moderate, severe and very severe desertification stages). The C, N, and P concentrations and C:N:P stoichiometry of the leaves, roots and litter differed among the different desertification stages. Desertification resulted in opposing trends between the leaf N concentration and leaf C:N ratio. With the exception of the very severe desertification stage, the leaf N:P ratio decreased over the process of grassland desertification. The soil C, N, and P concentrations and soil N:P and C:P ratios decreased significantly along the grassland desertification gradient. In contrast, the soil C:N ratio remained relatively stable during desertification (10.85 to 11.48). The results indicate that desertification is unfavourable to C and N fixation and has a negative effect on the ecosystem structure and function of desert grassland.