Land and Rio+20

Protecting an Irreplaceable Resource

Land Degradation in Uganda.

The planet’s most precious—and endangered—resources are under our feet. According to a new UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) report, soils are often overlooked in sustainable development discussions though they are essential to current and future water, energy, and food security.

Human reliance on the earth for food, fuel, settlements, roads, minerals, and more is a given. But population growth, climate change, and other factors are inhibiting land’s ability to meet these demands. Misguided or nonexistent land policies exacerbate the problem.

As a result, an increasing percentage of the world’s finite land—croplands, ranges, pastures, forests, and woodlands—is too eroded or nutrient-drained to supply crucial services. Called land degradation and, in arid and semi-arid regions, desertification, this phenomenon leads to an annual loss of 75 billion tons of fertile soil.

“About 24 percent of global land area has been affected by land degradation,” writes IFPRI Senior Researcher Ephraim Nkonya in the 2011 Global Food Policy Report. “This area is equivalent to the annual loss of about 1 percent of global land area, which could produce 20 million tons of grain each year, or 1 percent of global annual grain production. Globally, 1.5 billion people and 42 percent of the very poor live on degraded lands.”

To address this dire situation, the UNCCD report A Sustainable Development Goal for Rio+20: Zero Net Land Degradation, calls on world leaders attending the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) to adopt a global goal: zero-net land and forest degradation by 2030. According to the report, this can be achieved through policies that avoid degradation or offset it through land restoration.

“That’s something that is quite ambitious, but it is achievable,” said Nkonya, who contributed to the report.

On June 17, World Day to Combat Desertification, Luc Gnacadja, UNCCD’s Executive Secretary and other leaders will gather at a day-long Rio+20 event to discuss solutions to land degradation and desertification. Informing this dialogue is Nkonya’s research on the economics of land degradation, a topic that he explored in a recent IFPRI brief.

Learn more about IFPRI’s work on land degradation here. This new IFPRI Insights article on conservation agriculture provides additional insight into solutions to the land degradation problem.