Widespread degradation of land and water resources makes feeding the world’s growing population a profound challenge, according to a FAO report published last Monday. About 40% of the earth’s land surface that is suitable for food production is either highly or moderately degraded, and the trend suggests worse for the future.
The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) first global assessment of the state of the planet’s land and water resources found that climate change coupled with poor farming practices had contributed to a decrease in productivity of the world’s farmland following the boom years of the “green revolution”, when crop yields soared thanks to new technologies, pesticides and the introduction of high-yield crops.
FAO’s definition of degradation extends beyond soil and water degradation, and its assessment includes other aspects of affected ecosystems, for instance biodiversity loss.
Large parts of all continents are experiencing land degradation, with particularly high incidences down the west coast of the Americas, across Mediterranean region of Southern Europe and North Africa, across the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, and throughout Asia. The greatest threat is the loss of soil quality, followed by biodiversity loss and water resources depletion. In western Europe, highly intensive agriculture has led to pollution of soil and aquifers and a resulting loss of biodiversity. In the highlands of the Himalayas, the Andes, the Ethiopian plateau and southern Africa, soil erosion has been coupled with an increased intensity of floods. In the report it is said that water around the world is becoming ever more scarce and salinated, while groundwater is becoming more polluted by agricultural runoff and other toxins.
To meet the needs of the world’s expected 9-billion-strong population food production must have increased with 70% by 2050, according the FAO. This means 1 billion tonnes more staple foods such as wheat, rice and other cereals, and 200 million more tonnes of beef and other livestock products. But as it is, most available farmland is already being farmed, and not in a very sustainable manner, unfortunately. Farming practices that lead to soil erosion and wasting of water must be abandoned. Therefore, a major “sustainable intensification” of agricultural productivity on existing farmland will be necessary.
How to turn the tide
To achieve this the efficiency of water use by agriculture must be improved, as most irrigation systems across the world perform below their capacity. New innovative farming practices are paramount, together with improved irrigation scheme management, investment in local knowledge and modern technology, knowledge development and training can increase water-use efficiency. Examples like conservation agriculture, agro-forestry, integrated crop-livestock systems and integrated irrigation-aquaculture systems hold the promise of expanding production efficiently to address food security and poverty while limiting impacts on ecosystems.
All this requires increasing investment in agricultural development. The investment deemed necessary until 2050 is €750 billion for irrigation water management for developing countries alone, with another €120 billion for soil conservation and flood control.
Finally, the obvious capacity and capability building is promoted by FAO to cope with today’s emerging challenges of water and land resource management.
(Sources: FAO, 28.11.2011; the Guardian, 28.11.2011)