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AgricultureEnvironment

UN says up to 40% of world’s land now degraded

Human damage to the planet’s land is accelerating, with up to 40% now classed as degraded, while half of the world’s people are suffering the impacts, UN data has shown.

The world’s ability to feed a growing population is being put at risk by the rising damage, most of which is caused by food production. Women in the developing world are particularly badly affected as they often lack legal titles to land and can be thrown off it if conditions are tough.

Degraded land – which has been depleted of natural resources, soil fertility, water, biodiversity, trees or native vegetation – is found all over our planet. Many people think of degraded land as arid desert, rainforests maimed by loggers or areas covered in urban sprawl, but it also includes apparently “green” areas that are intensely farmed or stripped of natural vegetation.

Growing food on degraded land becomes progressively harder as soils rapidly reach exhaustion and water resources are depleted. Degradation also contributes to the loss of plant and animal species and can exacerbate the climate crisis by reducing the Earth’s ability to absorb and store carbon.

Most of the damage by people has come from food production, but consumption of other goods such as clothes also makes a big contribution. Much of the degradation is most visible in developing countries, but the root cause of overconsumption happens in the rich world, for instance in the increasing consumption of meat, which takes far more resources than growing vegetables, and fast fashion, which is worn briefly then thrown away.

Without urgent action, degradation will spread further. By 2050, an area the size of South America will be added to the toll if current rates of harm continue, according to the Global Land Outlook 2 report.

Ibrahim Thiaw, the executive secretary of the UN convention to combat desertification, said: “Land degradation is affecting food, water, carbon and biodiversity. It is reducing GDP, affecting people’s health, reducing access to clean water and worsening drought.”

Restoring degraded land can be as simple as changing farming methods to terrace and contour farming, leaving land fallow or planting nourishing cover crops, practising rainwater harvesting and storage or regrowing trees to prevent soil erosion. Many farmers fail to take these steps owing to pressure to produce, lack of knowledge, poor local governance or lack of access to resources. Yet for every $1 spent on restoration, the UN calculates a return of between $7 and $30 in increased production and other benefits.

Thiaw called for governments and the private sector to invest $1.6tn in the next decade to restore to health about 1bn hectares of degraded land – an area about the size of the US or China. This would amount to only a small proportion of the $700bn a year spent on subsidies to agriculture and fossil fuel, but would safeguard the planet’s soils, water resources and fertility.

“Every single farmer, big and small, can practise regenerative agriculture,” he told the Guardian. “There are a panoply of techniques and you don’t need hi-tech or a PhD to use them.”

Thiaw said: “Modern agriculture has altered the face of the planet, more than any other human activity. We need to urgently rethink our global food systems, which are responsible for 80% of deforestation, 70% of freshwater use and the single greatest cause of terrestrial biodiversity loss.”

About half of the world’s annual economic output, or about $44tn a year, is being put at risk by land degradation, according to the report. But the economic benefit of restoring degraded land could amount to between $125tn and $140tn a year, which would be about 50% more than the $93tn recorded global GDP for 2021.

The Global Land Outlook 2 report, only the second such report published, has taken the UN five years to compile with 21 partner organisations and represents the most comprehensive database of knowledge of the planet’s land yet.

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