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    24-billion tonnes of fertile soil lost annually

    According to the International Resource Panel, 24-billion tonnes of fertile soil and 15-billion trees are lost every year. Improvements need to be made in the way land is evaluated in order to unlock its true potential and reverse the alarming pace of land degradation.
    24-billion tonnes of fertile soil lost annually
    © 3355m – 123RF.com

    Erosion, nutrient depletion, acidification, salinisation, compaction and chemical pollution have left 33% of the world’s soils either moderately or highly degraded. If current conditions continue, then 320-849 million hectares of land will be converted to cropland by 2050 at the expense of the world’s savannahs, grasslands and forests. As a result, greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture may increase from 24% to 30%.

    As the global population expands, climate change intensifies and more people move to urban areas, it will become increasingly difficult to sustainably produce enough food, fuel and fibre to meet demand without further depleting the world’s finite land resources.

    Long-term potential of land

    Released recently in Beijing at a high-profile event to mark the World Day to Combat Desertification, the IRP’s latest report says that evaluating the long-term potential of land will help the world sustainably meet this demand.

    Unlocking the Sustainable Potential of Land Resources: Evaluation Systems, Strategies and Tools looks at a series of tools that can help policy-makers and land managers unlock the full potential of land, allowing them to use resources more efficiently.

    “Land potential evaluations must be completed and applied before changes in land use or management are implemented,” says the IRP, which is a consortium of 34 internationally renowned scientists, over 30 national governments and other groups hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). “No farmer or nation can afford to invest in land management systems that ignore existing knowledge and information.”

    “Despite this, land conversions to a single crop and management system continue to occur across areas in which soil, topography, and sometimes climate conditions are so variable that failure across at least part of the project is virtually inevitable.”

    Do more and better with less

    A better understanding of the potential of the world’s land resources – at farm, watershed, country and regional levels – could raise food productivity, promote biodiversity, and increase resilience to climate change.

    “To feed the world’s people, we will need to get the best we can out of the land,” said Ibrahim Thiaw, deputy executive director of UNEP. “But to make sure that we leave the environment in a healthy state, so that future generations can also feed their people, breathe clean air, build resilience to climate change, and use the resources nature provides to enrich their lives, we need to do the best we can for that land.

    “The International Resource Panel, in this study of the benefits of land evaluation, has again shown us a way to do more and better with less, and, at the same time, deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals that the world agreed to last year.”

    Monique Barbut, executive secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, said: “Land degradation and drought affect nearly 170 countries in the world. One of the pivotal targets of the SDGs is achieving land degradation neutrality by 2030. The aim is to maintain or increase the amount of healthy and productive land available today by preventing future land degradation while increasing the efficiency of our current land management practices. Evaluating the land's potential to ensure sustainable development in the right places, using the right practices is key to achieving this.

    “The report by the IRP is a good first step in this direction; it highlights useful tools to achieve land degradation neutrality. The UNCCD and its partners will continue to help build the capacity to ensure that these tools, where appropriate, are consistently applied on the ground at various scales.”

    According to the IRP, land evaluation could:

    • Increase productivity while adapting to climate change;
    • Minimise social, economic, and environmental risks of land use change;
    • Increase the success of restoration and biodiversity conservation; and
    • Promote innovation and knowledge sharing.

    “A better matching of production systems with land potential on existing agricultural lands, and increased innovation supported by carefully developed policies and strong institutions, will not by themselves allow us to live within our means – but they can make it easier,” the IRP says.

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