“Essentially, all life depends upon the soil. There can be no life without soil and no soil without life; they have evolved together”, American naturalist Charles Kellogg wrote in 1938. Fertile soil is indeed among the world’s most significant non-renewable and finite resources. It is a key element, which sustains life on the Earth and provides us with water, food, fodder and fuels.
But, as the global population is growing, competing claims on this finite resource are sharply increasing. Productive land is under pressure from agriculture and pastoral use as well as infrastructure growth, urbanization and extraction of minerals. To make things worse, policy-makers often overlook or misguide land use.
By 2030, the demand for food is expected to grow by 50 percent and for energy and water for 45 and 30 percent respectively. The demand for food alone is likely to claim an additional 120 million hectares of productive land – an area equal to the size of South Africa. Unless degraded land is rehabilitated, forests and other lands will have to make way for the required food production.
The rates of land depletion are especially worrying in the drylands, areas highly vulnerable to degradation due to aridity and water scarcity. Land degradation is called desertification here because it often creates desert-like conditions. Each year due to desertification and drought, 12 million hectares of land - the area equal to half the size of UK - are lost. This is an area, where 20 million tons of grain could have been gown.
Drylands make up 44 percent of all the world’s cultivated systems and account for 50 percent of its livestock. If we want to be able to meet the three biggest global challenges in the next twenty years – food, water and energy security – we need to do everything it takes to combat desertification and to restore degraded lands.
The global observance of the World Day to Combat Desertification this year takes place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, just a few days before the Rio+20 Conference. To this end, world leaders at Rio+20 need to adopt a stand-alone goal on sustainable land use for all and by all. To achieve this goal, we need to avoid land degradation in the non-degraded areas and restore soil fertility in the already degraded lands. We also need to avoid deforestation and adopt drought preparedness policies in all drought-prone countries and regions.
In the past, zero net land degradation was unattainable. But success stories in land restoration, scientific findings and technical know-how today indicate that the goal is realistic. Practical solutions to desertification exist and are already being employed by local communities around the world. Sustaining healthy soil and restoring degraded land ensure food security, alleviate rural poverty and hunger and build resilience to major environmental challenges.
More than two billion hectares of land worldwide are suitable for rehabilitation through agro-forestry and landscape restoration. Of that, about 1.5 billion hectares are suitable for mosaic restoration by means of agroforestry and smallholder agriculture. We need to promote sustainable land and water management techniques, agroforestry and re-greening initiatives and support them on the political level and through new inclusive business models. Only this way can we become a land-degradation neutral society.
To make it happen, we need your support. Governments should introduce sustainable land-use into their policies, make it their priority and set up national targets to halt land degradation. Businesses should invest in practices that increase efficiency in land-use. Scientists, media and civil society should help us spread the word that this goal is crucial. Together, we can make this paradigm shift.
It is my pleasure to wish you all a memorable celebration of the World Day to Combat Desertification. This is an important reminder for us that despite some progress, land degradation, desertification and drought are still our reality. We should not let them dry up our soil, the very foundation of the Future We Want.
Therefore, let us go land-degradation neutral.