20.09.2017 |

UN report calls for fundamental shift in agriculture to stop land degradation

Land degradation: a major threat (Photo: CC0)

A fundamental shift away from intensive agriculture is needed to halt and reverse land degradation, according to a new report. The Global Land Outlook, published by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) on September 12, warns that consumption of the earth’s natural reserves has doubled in the last 30 years, with a third of the planet’s land now severely degraded. Each year, we are losing 24 billion tonnes of fertile soil. The report mainly blames agriculture and livestock, which cover over one-third of the world’s land surface. “Intensification, driven by a lucrative but largely inefficient food system, has boosted production. However, it has also disturbed cultural landscapes and accelerated land and soil degradation, water shortages, and pollution,” the authors write.

The report warns that there is enormous pressure on land resources due to rising food demand, a global shift in dietary habits, biofuel production, urbanization, and other competing demands. As a result, a significant proportion of managed and natural ecosystems are degrading. From 1998 to 2013, around 20% of the Earth’s vegetated land surface showed declining trends in productivity, apparent in 20% of cropland, 16% of forest land, 19% of grassland, and 27% of rangeland. Currently, more than 1.3 billion people are trapped on degrading agricultural land. “As the ready supply of healthy and productive land dries up and the population grows, competition is intensifying, for land within countries and globally. As the competition increases, there are winners and losers,” said UNCCD Executive Secretary Monique Barbut. The report identifies smallholder farmers, women and indigenous communities as the main losers: “Small-scale farmers, the backbone of rural livelihoods and food production for millennia, are under immense strain from land degradation, insecure tenure, and a globalized food system that favors concentrated, large-scale, and highly mechanized agribusiness. These farmers often have limited options to pursue alternative livelihoods,” the report reads. Millions of people have already abandoned their ancestral lands and migrated to urban areas.

The experts argue that our inefficient food system is further accelerating the rate of land use change, land degradation and deforestation. They call for a shift away from resource-intensive production, carbon-intensive processing and transport, land-intensive diets (primarily from the increased demand for animal products and processed foods), and the current high levels of food waste, including post-harvest losses. On the production side, this requires a fundamental shift in agriculture practices to support a wider array of social, environmental, and economic benefits from managing land-based natural capital. Farm output needs to be measured in terms that are more than just yield per area, but include nutritional value, and wider values in terms of both the costs to environment and society, and benefits of a healthy landscape. Expanding the scope of agriculture to include a broader range of ecosystem and social services could provide extra incentives and a lifeline for the half billion small farmers, who are currently in danger of being displaced. The report highlights that there are already ways of growing food without excessive environmental costs, both through changes to conventional systems and alternative production pathways, such as organic agriculture, where yields are fast approaching those of more intensive systems. “Organic agriculture addresses many of the drivers of land degradation and their offsite impacts by eliminating chemical fertilizers and pesticides, helping to build soil organic matter, and applying water conservation methods,” the authors write.

On the consumer side, the report recommends more plant-based and whole food diets. „Changing diets, especially in the richer countries, could have major positive impacts on both personal health and the condition of the land. Virtually every scenario of future food availability shows that reducing meat consumption, especially beef, is the quickest and most effective way to increase food security and reduce carbon emissions.” The authors are optimistic that with changes in consumer and corporate behavior, and the adoption of better land use and management, we will have sufficient land available in the long-term to satisfy all demands. But they stress that a move from the current “age of plunder” toward an “age of respect”, where we respect biophysical limits, is essential. Without this, we will not be able to achieve many of the Sustainable Development Goals - especially SDG 15, which calls for the protection, restoration and sustainable management of land-based ecosystems. (ab)

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Donors of globalagriculture Bread for all biovision Bread for the World Misereor Heidehof Stiftung Hilfswerk der Evangelischen Kirchen Schweiz Rapunzel
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