Soil erosion looms as potential humanitarian disaster

  1. Over 50 percent of earth's land surface is "under considerable pressure"
  2. Shift to animal-based diets partly to blame
  3. Societies that degrade their topsoil do not last

The ability to feed 10-12 billion humans by the end of the century is one of the great challenges facing humanity – and the world may not be capable of living up to it. This stark forecast comes from a new edition of the World Atlas of Desertification, which finds that 4.18 million square kilometers of land – an area half the size of the European Union – are being degraded each year. 

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Degradation of the globe’s land surface caused by human activity is already negatively impacting the well being of at least 3.2 billion people, and eating up more than 10 percent of the planet’s annual GDP (IPBES).

Michael Cherlet, a co-author of the Atlas report, which was released in June, told WikiTribune that over 50 percent of earth’s land surface is “under considerable pressure.” Coupled with climate change, land degradation is expected to reduce global crop yields up to 10 percent by 2050.

With the world’s population predicted to rise to 9.7 billion by 2050 (United Nations), and annual world agricultural production needing to increase 60 percent by then (UN Food and Agriculture Organization), land degradation presents a significant problem for humanity.

Livestock partly to blame

Land degradation is a process in which the environment, including cropland, is adversely affected by a combination of human-induced processes. Its implications impact agronomic productivity, the environment and food security.

Urbanization, deforestation and mining each contribute to land degradation. But with roughly one-third of the planet’s land used for agriculture, and 70 percent of this land used for raising livestock (Food and Energy Security), industrial farming has the greatest impact on the diminishment of fertile land. 

“Much of today’s cereal production goes into animal feed and four times as much cereal is needed for a medium-protein diet than a vegetarian diet … hence eating more meat means more land (is used) for the same number of calories,” said Dr. Alan Belward, head of the EU’s Land Resource Management Unit with the Institute for Environment and Sustainability in northern Italy. 

Belward, who worked on the Atlas report, told WikiTribune that where growing crops is difficult or impossible, raising livestock makes sense. Elsewhere, however, livestock can pollute water, increase greenhouse gas emissions and negatively impact human health.

According to Belward, all of the causes of land degradation are exacerbated by the fact that roughly 155 people net are added to the world each minute – with 250 people born and 105 people dying every 60 seconds (Ecology) – adding considerable pressure on existing resources.

A new Dust Bowl?

In 2015, leaders at the United Nations adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals, including reaching land degradation neutrality by 2030. The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification defines “land degradation neutrality” as a “commitment to avoid degradation, to move towards sustainable land management and at the same time to massively scale up the rehabilitation of degraded land and soil.”

Ronald Vargas, Secretary of the Global Soil Partnership, is responsible for implementing these goals. Vargas told WikiTribune the situation is “fixable,” and that reversing soil degradation is “a very cheap and very affordable option” that requires more action. 

But Robert Scholes, of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), and a co-chair of a UN-backed IPBES study, said turning around the situation by 2030 would be “close to impossible.”

Nevertheless, the IPBES study found that doing nothing to combat land degradation would cost three times more than the cost of action, and that the benefits of restoration are 10 times higher than the costs.

Scholes told WikiTribune land degradation is “highly likely” to be a contributing factor to future wars, noting the IPBES study found that in dryland areas, years with extremely low rainfall have been associated with up to a 45 percent increase in violence.

Dust storm approaching Stratford, Texas. The Dust Bowl forced tens of thousands of poor families to abandon their farms. Photo taken April 1935. (Author: NOAA George E. Marsh Album; copyright: public domain)
Dust storm approaching Stratford, Texas, in 1935. The Dust Bowl forced tens of thousands of Americans to abandon their farms. Author: NOAA George E. Marsh Album; copyright: public domain

And it is associated with causing areas of high water stress, which by 2030, half the world’s population could be living in. Land degradation also leads to diminishing health and the spread of respiratory diseases via atmospheric dust (WHO). In 1930s America (sometimes referred to as the Dirty Thirties), land degradation caused massive dust storms. The Dust Bowl was the result of severe drought, removal of topsoil and other farming practices.

How to fix it?

When the top layer of fertile soil is eroded, humans get fewer important micronutrients, such as zinc and iron, normally obtained through consumption of agricultural products, according to David Montgomery, a professor of earth and space sciences at the University of Washington.

“If we don’t get enough of them, we’re essentially compromising our ability to maintain our immune system, [and] to maintain our health,” Montgomery told WikiTribune“Societies that degraded their topsoil did not last.”

Montgomery visited farmers in Ghana, Costa Rica and across North America, as part of his research for his latest book, Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life. He consistently saw that soil’s organic matter was less than half of what it had originally been. He said agricultural industries are able to maintain high crop yields despite this loss by using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Yet the use of these products further degrades soil, so over time farmers get diminishing returns.

At a coffee plantation in Costa Rica, Montgomery noticed a river next to a field appeared to be a glowing orange color, rather than a typically muddy brown, because the darker topsoil had been completed eroded away. The result was the introduction of crop diseases not seen before in the area.

But he also met farmers who’d managed to double, triple or even quadruple the levels of their soil’s organic matter within just a couple of decades, which in geological terms he described as “screamingly fast.”

How did they do this? The solution is summarized in his book as “ditch the plough, cover up and grow diversity.” Montgomery said this means rather than leaving land fallow (not growing anything on it), farmers should keep plants in the ground at all times, avoid mono-cultures (growing just one type of crop over a large area) and stop ploughing.

“Wouldn’t it be disturbing if somebody, once a year, came to your house, pulled the roof off, took a giant spoon and stirred up all your possessions?” he said. “That’s what ploughing the soil does to soil life.”

Growing plants on land year round would also help deal with climate change, as it removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and puts it back into the soil.

“We could stash a whole lot of carbon in the ground,” Montgomery said.

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It’s tempting to think land degradation might be solved with a technological revolution, such as the green revolution. However, Montgomery said “it would be very difficult to feed subsistence farmers with technology and capital-intensive methods. It’s hard to get a farmer to adopt the technology that they can’t afford.” That’s why he recommends a “brown revolution,” where farmers focus on soil health instead. 

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