So we're ruining the world's farmland. Great. Now what are we going to do about it?
First of all, it's a global problem. In some places it's worse than others, much worse. Yet even good farmland is becoming degraded.
I was introduced to this several years ago when I did a couple of online courses on global food security. Some of the assigned readings were surprisingly interested and I went beyond the designated chapters to discover troubling information about soils degradation mainly due to the use of agricultural chemicals (fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides) and intensive, industrial agriculture - the Green Revolution. In many places soil was being worked to exhaustion, transforming arable farmland into desert.
Then, in 2014, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released what should have been an alarming wakeup call. Their report warned that mankind had 60 harvests remaining. Here is some helpful (I hope) background information.
2050, might as well be 2550, I'll be long dead by then, You might too. That 2050 stuff doesn't tend to go to the top of our priority list. But what about 2018? Surely that's a little more relevant.
50%, that's the number bandied about. The International Energy Agency says humans will need some 50% more energy by 2050. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization and several other august bodies figure we'll need 50% more agricultural production to feed the global herd by 2050.
Today we've been given an update on the current state of global soils degradation.
Land degradation is undermining the wellbeing of two-fifths of humanity, raising the risks of migration and conflict, according to the most comprehensive global assessment of the problem to date.
The UN-backed report underscores the urgent need for consumers, companies and governments to rein in excessive consumption – particularly of beef – and for farmers to draw back from conversions of forests and wetlands, according to the authors.
With more than 3.2 billion people affected, this is already one of the world’s biggest environmental problems and it will worsen without rapid remedial action, according to Robert Scholes, co-chair of the assessment by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). “As the land base decreases and populations rise, this problem will get greater and harder to solve,” he said.
The IPBES study, launched in Medellín on Monday after approval by 129 national governments and three years of work by more than 100 scientists, aims to provide a global knowledge base about a threat that is less well-known than climate change and biodiversity loss, but closely connected to both and already having a major economic and social impact.
The growing sense of alarm was apparent last year when scientists warned fertile soil was being lost at the rate of 24bn tonnes a year, largely due to unsustainable agricultural practices.
3.2 B-illion already impacted - here, now, as we live and breathe - and this is just the early onset stuff. We're losing 24 B-illion tonnes of fertile soil every year. To put that in perspective, it takes nature, depending on the local ecology, from 500 to 1,000 years to produce 3 cms., just over an inch, of topsoil. In other words, nature will not be getting us out of this fix.
Drawing on more than 3,000 scientific, government, indigenous and local knowledge sources, the authors estimate [early onset] land degradation costs more than 10% of annual global GDP in lost ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration and agricultural productivity. They say it can raise the risks of flooding, landslides and diseases such as Ebola and the Marburg virus.
To counter this, the authors call for coordination among ministries to encourage sustainable production and for the elimination of agricultural subsidies that promote land degradation. They urge consumers to reduce waste and be more thoughtful about what they eat. Vegetables have a much lower impact on land than beef. Farmers are encouraged to raise productivity rather than clear more land. Companies and governments are advised to accelerate efforts to rehabilitate land. There have been several successful projects on China’s Loess plateau, in the Sahel and in South Africa.
The economic case for land restoration is strong, according to the report, which says benefits (such as jobs and business spending) are 10 times higher than costs, and up to three times higher than price of inaction. But in most regions, remedial work is overdue. National governments are not living up to a global commitment to neutral land degradation by 2030.