Restoring damaged land key to climate, biodiversity goals

Reuters file photo
A farmer drives a tractor in his field while planting potatoes in Tilloy-lez-Cambrai, France on April 12.

PARIS (AFP-Jiji) — Unsustainable farming is on track to increase the amount of severely degraded land by an area the size of South America by mid-century, a U.N. report warned April 27, as experts said restoration was a matter of “survival.”

Global food systems are responsible for 80% of deforestation and 70% of freshwater use, said the report.

They are also the single largest driver of species extinction, which is occurring 100 to 1,000 times more rapidly today than when human activity began to radically change the climate and degrade nature.

“The risk of widespread, abrupt or irreversible environmental change will grow,” the Global Land Outlook 2 report warns.

The 40% of Earth’s non-frozen land denatured by chemical-intensive exploitation threatens roughly half of global GDP, some $44 trillion, according to the 250-page peer-reviewed assessment, which called for action “on a crisis footing.”

“How we manage and use land resources is threatening the health and continued survival of many species on Earth, including the human species,” Ibrahim Thiaw, Executive Secretary of the U.N. convention charged with reversing land degradation told AFP.

“Business as usual is not a viable pathway for our continued survival and prosperity.”

The flagship report of the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) came two weeks before the treaty’s 197 parties meet for the first time in three years, in Abidjan.

Adapting to an increase in drought and transitioning to sustainable agriculture top an agenda more broadly focused on restoring the health of one of Earth’s vital resources: land.

At least 70% of ice-free land on Earth has been converted to human use, and most of that has been degraded. That means that things do not grow as much or as well as they used to.

“There’s not a lot of land left,” UNCCD chief scientist Barron Orr told AFP. “And yet, we still see an accelerated rate of land use change taking place.”

The report reveals a startling level of concentration in the production of food.

At one extreme, 1% of agribusinesses control 70% of the world’s agricultural land. At the other extreme, 80% of farms comprise only 12% of all farmland.

“The solution, at least in the initial phase, is not going to be converting land back to small holders,” said Orr.

“It’s making sure we move large agriculture into a much more sustainable space.”

The U.N. Paris Agreement’s cornerstone climate goal is capping global warming below 2 C, and the biodiversity convention is aiming later this year to carve out 30% of Earth’s surface as protected areas.

For the desertification convention, the core goal is “land degradation neutrality” by 2030.

Behind the cumbersome name is a simple concept that can be summed up as “no net loss”: to ensure that, by 2030, the amount of degraded land in a given country has not expanded compared to a 2015 baseline.

Previously, the international response has been bogged down in arguments about metrics.

That problem hampered progress on the Great Green Wall, an ambitious, multi-decade scheme to reclaim agricultural land from the desert along the Sahel stretching 7,000 kilometers from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.

Countries could not agree on how to monitor and measure progress. But the new benchmark is far easier to apply, said Orr.