Land the size of South America will be degraded if current trends continue: UN Report

We cannot afford to continue taking land, our most valuable asset, for granted, says UNCCD chief

By Shagun
Published: Wednesday 27 April 2022

Some 16 million square kilometres of land — the size of South America — will be degraded if current trends continue, according to a new report from the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) released April 27, 2022.

This will result in severe climate-induced disturbances resulting in food supply disruptions, forced migrations and even increased species extinction.

The report has predicted an additional 69 gigatonnes of carbon emission from 2015 to 2050 due to land use change and soil degradation and a slowing in growth of agricultural yields.

However, if land restoration is done on a massive scale across a potential five billion hectares with various measures, crop yields will increase by 5-10 per cent in most developing countries, the report added.

Carbon stocks will also rise by a net 17 gigatonnes between 2015 and 2050 due to gains in soil carbon and reduced emissions, it said.

The measures enumerated are conservation agriculture (low- or no-till farming), agroforestry and silvo-pasture, improved grazing management and grassland rehabilitation, forest plantations.

The Global Land Outlook 2 stated that at no other point in modern history had humanity faced such an array of familiar and unfamiliar risks and hazards, interacting in a hyper-connected and rapidly changing world.

“Humans have already transformed more than 70 per cent of the earth’s land area from its natural state, causing unparalleled environmental degradation and contributing significantly to global warming,” it said.

Up to 40 per cent of the planet’s land is degraded, directly affecting half of humanity and threatening roughly half of global gross domestic product ($44 trillion).

The economic returns of restoring land and reducing degradation, greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss could be as high as $125-140 trillion every year — up to 50 per cent more than the $93 trillion global GDP in 2021, according to the report.

It raised an important point that globally, at least $300 billion will be required annually to achieve significant results in restoring land by 2030. This is far less than the amount of subsidies currently provided to farmers in developed countries.

“Nations’ current pledge to restore one billion degraded hectares by 2030 requires $1.6 trillion this decade — a fraction of today’s annual $700 billion in fossil fuel and agricultural subsidies,” it said.

The report said eliminating or repurposing harmful farm subsidies would trigger a shift from resource-depleting practices to those that link resource efficiency and productivity gains to healthy and resilient food systems.

The report termed food systems to be the ‘single greatest driver’ of terrestrial natural capital loss currently. It said crop and grazing lands now covered more than five billion hectares, almost 40 per cent of the earth’s land surface.

“The ongoing destruction of nature for food production (ie extensification) is now encroaching on some of the most carbon-rich ecosystems on the planet,” it noted.

It added that while agricultural intensification can increase yields in the short term, unless done in a sustainable manner, it tends to cause high levels of land and soil degradation and contamination.

“Faced with long-term declines in productivity and water scarcity, farmers paradoxically resort to the increased use of harmful agrochemicals and inefficient irrigation systems,” the report said. 

Ibrahim Thiaw, executive secretary of the UNCCD, said, “Modern agriculture has altered the face of the planet more than any other human activity. We need to urgently rethink our global food systems, which are responsible for 80 per cent of deforestation, 70 per cent of freshwater use and the single greatest cause of terrestrial biodiversity loss.”

Investing in large-scale land restoration was a powerful, cost-effective tool to combat desertification, soil erosion and loss of agricultural production. “As a finite resource and our most valuable natural asset, we cannot afford to continue taking land for granted,” Thiaw said.

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