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Our population is growing but our natural resources are not.

As we meet our needs for food, fibers, fodder, and other benefits, we are contributing to land degradation.

There are ways to improve production and consumption to make them more sustainable.

People are consuming more than ever. Our choices are having an unprecedented impact on the environment. The jeans, skirts or suits we wear, the pharmaceuticals and cosmetics we use, the food and drink we consume – all of these products have an impact, to varying degrees, on the environment. We need to think carefully about how we can meet our daily needs more efficiently and we need to provide the answers quickly.

We all depend to some extent on trees, forests, and other land resources for goods and services that help to make our lives easier. But these benefits can come at a high price if they are not sustainably sourced.

By 2030, the fashion industry alone is expected to use 35 percent more land than it does now – more than 115 million hectares, equivalent to the size of Colombia. By the same year, food production will require an additional 300 million hectares of land.

The 17 June Global Observance of Desertification and Drought Day, as designated by the UN, is a reminder that the leading driver of desertification and land degradation is human production and consumption. The current system is not sustainable, not with a global population that is expected to reach nearly 10 billion people by the year 2050.

More than 70 percent of the world’s natural ecosystems – from rainforests to prairies to coastal zones – have been converted in some way to human use. Today, more than two billion hectares of previously productive land is degraded, with consequences like soil erosion, build-up of salts or acidification, and the loss of biodiversity. At the same time, climate change is increasing the odds of worsening drought and water scarcity in many parts of the world.

These trends show how urgently we need to strike a better balance between the ways in which we use land and the measures we take to protect and restore it. New challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have added to the economic pressures facing vulnerable populations, many of whom rely directly on livelihoods linked to agriculture and other land use. It is vitally important to help the 1.3 billion vulnerable people, many of whom are trapped in difficult circumstances by degraded land, to conserve and restore resources on which we all vitally depend.

Restoring the productivity of vast expanses of degraded land would speed achievement of multiple SDGs, including those on poverty reduction (SDG 1); food, nutrition, and water security (SDGs 2 and 6); climate adaptation and mitigation (SDG 13); biodiversity conservation (SDGs 14 and 15); and the enhanced resilience of communities and ecosystems (SDGs 11, 14, and 15).

Fortunately, there are people in numerous countries who already know what to do and who are trying to do what is needed. One approach that is working is Action Against Desertification (AAD), a programme of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), carried out in line with the aims of the internationally agreed UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

Action Against Desertification monitors land changes and carries out restoration on a large scale, tying into the Great Green Wall initiative in Africa, which is bringing health and moisture back to degraded landscapes in more than 20 countries. In just five years, AAD, also active in the Caribbean and the Pacific, planted over 60,000 hectares of degraded agro-sylvo-pastoral lands and supported sustainable production, agricultural education, and income generation in other ways.

The programme supports approaches like sustainable production of seeds and animal fodder, improved production of non-timber products like tree oils and gum Arabic, the digging of water-retaining trenches in Niger, and the conservation and incorporation of forest cover in agriculture (agroforestry) in Ethiopia. The programme also helps farmers to improve their knowledge of plant species, cultivation, and business marketing, reaching more than 700,000 producers, pastoralists, and herders in rural communities.  

Overall, the prospects for increasing land restoration actions globally are promising. There are signs of international support in forward-looking initiatives like the UN Decade for Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030) and the European Green Deal (2021-2050).

Aiming for zero land degradation is an ambitious task but one which is achievable through policy commitments, problem solving, strong community, and individual involvement and cooperation at all levels. COVID-19 is a stark reminder of how fragile our food systems are – and a tremendous opportunity to reset food systems by changing the way we have come to produce, process, and consume food.

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This article was written by Moctar Sacande, International Project Coordinator, Action Against Desertification, FAO, and Tiina Vähänen, Chief, Forestry, Policy and Resources Division, FAO.


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