The world is quietly losing the land it needs to feed itself

A drought-affected corn field in the town of Serodino, Santa Fe province, Argentina, on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023. MUST CREDIT: Sebastian Lopez Brach/Bloomberg

The greatest threats to our existence today are caused by human activity rather than nature acting alone, according to a recent United Nations report.

Many people are familiar with human contribution to climate change and perhaps also the loss of biodiversity. But there’s a third environmental impact that rarely gets the attention it deserves: desertification, also known as land degradation.

The world is rapidly losing usable land for self-inflicted reasons, ranging from intensive agriculture and overgrazing of livestock to real estate development and, yes, climate change. The crisis is further fueling food and water insecurity, as well as adding to more greenhouse gas emissions.

Environmental scientists haven’t ignored the problem. In fact, the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 led to the creation of three UN conventions: climate change, biodiversity and desertification.

The climate convention holds big COP summits each year – such as COP28 in Dubai – that now frequently make front-page headlines.

But while the biodiversity and desertification conventions also hold COP summits, they’re only once every two years and rarely get that much interest. It’s a lost opportunity, says Ibrahim Thiaw, executive secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, who hinted it could be a branding issue because people think it’s only about deserts.

“There is a misunderstanding of the term desertification. That’s why we also use ‘land degradation,’” Thiaw said.

Ironically, one of the biggest challenges in the fight against land degradation is universal: We need to eat. About 40% of the planet’s land – 5 billion hectares – is used for farming. One third of that is to grow crops and the rest for grazing livestock.

Unfortunately, the world doesn’t have a great track record for sustainable agriculture practices. Over the past 500 years, human activity (mainly agriculture) has led to nearly 2 billion hectares of land being degraded.

That’s contributed to about 500 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent released from soil disturbance, or about a quarter of all greenhouse gases contributing to additional warming today. Further land degradation until 2050 could add another 120 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent to the atmosphere, worsening climate change.

Thiaw said focusing attention on land restoration projects could flip this script. “There are no solutions for land degradation that also don’t have benefits for other problems we face,” he said.

Along with curbing emissions, a World Economic Forum report found that investing about $2.7 trillion each year in ecosystem restoration, regenerative agriculture and circular business models could help add nearly 400 million new jobs and generate more than $10 trillion in economic value annually.

Governments globally spend more than $600 billion on direct agricultural subsidies that can be redirected toward practices that help land restoration and increase yields, said Thiaw. “There’s nothing more irrational than taking public money to destroy your own natural capital,” he said. “But it is being done election after election.”

One reason why the problem of land degradation has been largely ignored might be that humans have lost their link to the land, according to Osama Ibrahim Faqeeha, deputy minister for environment in Saudi Arabia, which will host COP16 on desertification later this year.

“A big portion of the population lives in cities now. We live in a concrete forest,” Faqeeha said. “So few people have a direct connection between us and food production.”

Another explanation might have to do with how rich countries treated the problem. “For the longest time it was considered an African issue” by developed countries, said Thiaw. “It was not seen as a global issue.” Today land degradation and drought affect almost every country in the world.

Even the biggest economy in the world isn’t able to ignore land degradation. “When you think about soil, the US Secretary of State is probably not the first person who comes to mind,” said Antony Blinken at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos. “But the truth is soil is literally at the root of many pressing national security challenges we face.”

Global demand for food is expected to increase 50% by 2050, said Blinken, even as climate change could reduce global yields by 30%. “A parent who can’t put food on the table for their children picks up the family and moves,” he said, “And if that means moving halfway around the world, they will. But that contributes to unprecedented migration flows.”

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Akshat Rathi writes the Zero newsletter, which examines the world’s race to cut planet-warming emissions. His book Climate Capitalism will be published in the US and Canada on March 12.



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