People, Environment

Agriculture Degrades Third of Earth’s Soil

Industrial agriculture is good at feeding populations but it is not sustainable.
Industrial agriculture is good at feeding populations but it is not sustainable.

A third of the planet’s land is severely degraded and fertile soil is being lost at the rate of 24 billion tons a year, according to a new United Nations-backed study that calls for a shift away from destructively intensive agriculture.

The alarming decline, which is forecast to continue as demand for food and productive land increases, will add to the risks of conflicts such as those seen in Sudan and Chad unless remedial actions are implemented, warns the institution behind the report.

“As the ready supply of healthy and productive land dries up and the population grows, competition is intensifying for land within countries and globally,” said Monique Barbut, executive secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification at the launch of the Global Land Outlook, Reddit reported.

“To minimize the losses, the outlook suggests it is all in our interests to step back and rethink how we are managing the pressures and the competition.”

The Global Land Outlook is billed as the most comprehensive study of its type, mapping the interlinked impacts of urbanization, climate change, erosion and forest loss. However, the biggest factor is the expansion of industrial farming.

Heavy tilling, multiple harvests and abundant use of agrochemicals have increased yields at the expense of long-term sustainability. In the past 20 years, agricultural production has increased threefold and the amount of irrigated land has doubled, notes a paper in the study by the Joint Research Center of the European Commission.

Over time, however, this diminishes fertility and can lead to abandonment of land and ultimately desertification.

The JRC noted that decreasing productivity could be observed on 20% of the world’s cropland, 16% of forestland, 19% of grassland and 27% of rangeland.

“Industrial agriculture is good at feeding populations but it is not sustainable. It is like an extractive industry,” said Louise Baker, external relations head of the UN body.

She said the fact that a third of land is now degraded should prompt more urgent action to address the problem.

“It’s quite a scary number when you consider rates of population growth, but this is not the end of the line. If governments make smart choices, the situation can improve,” Baker said, noting the positive progress made by countries like Ethiopia that has rehabilitated 7 million hectares.

However, the study notes that pressures will continue to grow. In a series of forecasts on land use for 2050, the authors note that sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa will face the greatest challenges unless the world sees lower levels of meat consumption, better land regulation and improved farming efficiency.


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