#10 hunger
Mark Schauer / Julian Jäger

The Lost Soils

Around one quarter of the global landmass is threatened by degradation. A global initiative wants to raise awareness for sustainable land management.

To photographers, degraded landscapes present an interesting motif: they create atmospherically impressive pictures. To the people who inhabit them though – and are forced to live with the consequences – they represent nothing positive.

Around one quarter of the global landmass is threatened by erosion, desiccation or salinization. Progressive soil loss has become an urgent global problem.

Depleted or dried out soil can support fewer crops – or sometimes none at all. So the range of available vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables drops and the few products that can still be grown are less nutritional. For local populations this results in food and nutrition insecurity. A decline in the availability of drinking water often accompanied by a drop in quality is another side effect that makes it more difficult to hygienically process and prepare food. This causes adverse health effects from malnutrition and even famine.

"The soil we are losing today is irreparably lost to us and the generations to follow."

The available area of fertile land is rapidly decreasing. The estimated loss of farmland due to desertification, for example, is around 12 million hectares per year – an area three times the size of Switzerland. If we then add soil loss due to overgrazing, depletion or salt water intrusion, the seriousness of the issue becomes even clearer. What makes this situation particularly drastic: soil loss is irreversible. Thousands of years of natural processes are needed to form the necessary layer of fertile humus. The soil we are losing today is irreparably lost to us and the generations to follow.

Lack of awareness

Land degradation is by no means a problem limited to poor and developing countries: Spain, India and Australia have already lost large areas due to soil erosion and salt water intrusion. Countries like Kenya (nutrient depletion of the soil), Nigeria (overgrazing, salt water intrusion, nutrient depletion) and Peru (soil erosion) are also affected, to name just one nation to represent each respective continent.

The impact of land degradation is also not strictly limited to the immediate health and social consequences for the local population affected by soil loss. It also has a huge economic component. Scientists estimate that lost production resulting from soil degradation amounts to around 420 billion euros every year.

Issue #10

In recent years a number of studies have explored these negative economic consequences and worked on developing solutions to the problem. Many have shown that the public is largely unaware, indifferent and uninformed on this issue. To date "land degradation" is an abstract term largely reserved for expert symposiums. While some of us might remember discussing "soil erosion in Kazakhstan" back in geology class at school, the issue of "soil loss" has not played an important role in either public discourse or for our policy makers. This is true worldwide.

"The public is largely unaware, indifferent and uninformed on this issue."

Many studies, such as the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change and the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) initiative, which show a thematic crossover on the economics of land degradation, have therefore also emphasised the importance of using illustrative economic examples to demonstrate the effects and impact to policy makers and the public to create the awareness desperately needed to drive the required response.

The Economics of Land Degradation initiative

The idea arose to create a format to disseminate information on a wide scale – and not just to executives making decisions for public and private institutions and organisations who are already involved in the issue, but also to a more widely defined group of recipients. To this end the Economics of Land Degradation – ELD global initiative was created in mid-2011, a cooperation project involving the European Commission, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) was designated coordinator for the ELD and a secretariat was set up to fulfil these responsibilities.

The ELD's primary mission is to raise worldwide awareness of the fact that, from an economic standpoint, investment in sustainable land management and maintaining fertile soil are both necessary and profitable. The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the Zentrum für Entwicklungsforschung (ZEF) completed a study that explored this aspect and was published on the ELD portal. It showed that the cost of limiting land degradation is far lower than the costs resulting from the impact of land degradation. Ergo: investing in sustainable land management is worthwhile for all stakeholders.

This does present challenges though, since the issue is comparatively difficult to grasp. The loss of "dirt", as the public often perceives soil, is viewed as less pressing or important than the loss of charismatic animals like cute panda bears or the threat of rising sea water levels. In the first year, the initiative succeeded in anchoring the economics of land degradation in a series of international key processes, as for instance the United Nations General Assembly and Rio +20, and in eliciting support for the initiative's mission at international events. Coordinating close collaboration among lobbyists from politics, the private sector and the scientific community in all relevant processes is therefore also one of the secretariat's central responsibilities.

To ensure that this collaboration benefits all those involved, a wide-reaching network of suitable cooperation partners from science, the private sector and politics was created when the ELD initiative was founded. The fundamental scientific processes were initiated with the wide support of a broad group of research institutions, among them the above mentioned "founding fathers" and the Korea Forest Service, IFPRI, the OSLO Consortium (comprising Global Mechanism, the Stockholm Environment Institute and the United Nations University's Institute for Water, Environment and Health, Toronto, among others) and the World Bank.

These institutions are the initiative's core partners. They have been joined by a more wide-ranging circle of partners consisting of the TEEB Initiative, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the German Federal Environment Agency, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Welthungerhilfe, Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau (KfW), the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and McKinsey. All these institutions have joined forces with others from the scientific community and politics to support the ELD partner network that has been developed over the past two years as the foundation for additional outreach activities.

Curtailing the global hunger problem is an important mission about which the ELD initiative would like to effect knowledge transfer. Conserving and sustainably using fertile soil to allow us to produce sufficient food to feed our global population are two sides of the same coin. But global problems such as the loss of biodiversity and advancing climate change can also only be solved by sustainable land use concepts, and such measures also give rise to direct synergy effects in other areas. Through its economic arguments, the ELD initiative has adopted an innovative approach for this sector, taking up the battle against hunger from a different perspective and complementing already existing structures.

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