27.06.2018 |

Land area half the size of the EU is degraded every year, report

Soil degradation has increased (Photo: CC0)

Population growth and changes in consumption patterns put unprecedented pressure on the planet’s natural resources. Land degradation has become a serious problem: Globally, a total area half of the size of the European Union is degraded annually, with Africa and Asia being the most affected regions. This is the sad message of the latest edition of the World Atlas of Desertification, published by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) on 21 June. The Atlas was created using new data processing methods employed by EU scientists, thousands of high-performance computers and 1.8 petabytes of satellite data. “Over the past twenty years, since the publication of the last edition of the World Atlas of Desertification, pressures on land and soil have increased dramatically,” warns Tibor Navracsics, EU Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport. “To preserve our planet for future generations, we urgently need to change the way we treat these precious resources.”

The Atlas is intended as a tool for decision makers to better understand land degradation, its causes and potential remedies to tackle desertification and restore degraded land. It provides many examples of how human activity drives species to extinction, threatens food security, intensifies climate change and leads to people being displaced from their homes. The report contains a large collection of facts, forecasts and global datasets about land degradation: According to the Atlas, over 75% of the Earth’s land area is already degraded, and over 90% could become degraded by 2050. Land degradation and climate change are estimated to lead to a reduction of global crop yields by about 10% by 2050. Most of this will occur in India, China and sub-Saharan Africa, where land degradation could even halve crop production. It is projected that by 2050, up to 700 million people will have been displaced due to issues linked to scarce land resources. This figure could reach 10 billion by the end of this century.

The report also presents solutions to the problem of land degradation. The authors stress that further agricultural expansion, one of the main causes of land degradation, could be limited by increasing yields on existing farmland, shifting to plant-based diets, consuming animal proteins from sustainable sources and reducing food loss and waste. The Atlas presents many examples of successful sustainable land management practices around the globe and their environmental, ecological and societal benefits. One of them is the widespread implementation of small-scale water-harvesting systems that make better use of precious rainfall in drylands. Micro-basins, as those near Mount Kenya presented in the report, are an effective way of maximizing rainwater retention. In order to avoid the loss of soil moisture through evaporation, the soil is covered. Leaving crop residues and weeds (applied as a mulch) between crop rotations is a good practice to keep permanent soil cover and reduce moisture loss. Another good land management practice cited in the report is the large-scale terracing of land in the Loess plateau of China which has improved land productivity and the livelihoods of millions of land users. This measure not only helped to increase food production for a growing population, it also reduced catastrophic floods and the sedimentation of large dams.

“Maintaining or improving the productive capacity of land requires a move towards land degradation neutrality. This is a matter of preserving or enhancing the ability of land resources to support ecosystem functions and services,” concludes the report. “Sustainable management of soil, water and biodiversity can help close yield gaps, increase the resilience of land and thus support the people who depend on it for their livelihoods. This will come at a cost, but the cost of action or prevention is always lower than the cost of inaction,” the authors stress. (ab)

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