Unsustainable agriculture has sped up global warming, warns UN expert

  • Desertification has already begun in many places around the world, and droughts are hitting harder as climate change takes hold
  • Restoring land is key to fighting poverty and allows people to stay in their homelands
Agence France-Presse |

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Efforts to combat desertification have been going on for 30 years but have had far less attention than climate change. Photo: Shutterstock

Decades of unsustainable agriculture have depleted soils worldwide and accelerated both global warming and species loss, according to the United Nations (UN) official spearheading efforts to reverse land degradation.

Ibrahim Thiaw is the Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), whose 197 parties – 196 countries plus the European Union – meet next month for the first time in three years in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire (known as the Ivory Coast in English).

Thiaw spoke to Agence France-Presse about the crisis of deteriorating land quality and how it is linked to climate change and biodiversity. The interview has been edited for length:

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International efforts to combat desertification have been going on for three decades but have had far less attention than climate change and biodiversity. Are they less important?

“No. Human beings live on land, but we also live off the land. We cannot take it for granted – land is a finite resource that must be managed, not just exploited and mined. We have already reached a breaking point: there is no longer a balance between our needs and the capacity of the land to regenerate and produce.”

Filao trees form a curtain that protects the beginning of the Great Green Wall, planted to slow coastal erosion along the Atlantic Ocean, in Lompoul village near Kebemer, Senegal. The 11-country Great Green Wall in Africa aims to restore 100 million hectares of degraded landscapes. Photo: AP (AP Photo/Leo Correa, file)

What are the key issues?

“Two are especially critical. Droughts are hitting harder, and in more regions. No country is immune – look at the western United States. But when they hit communities that are vulnerable, it’s a major disaster. We see it now in the Horn of Africa, or last year in Madagascar. Droughts have always existed, but with climate change they are becoming more frequent and more severe.”

“The other critical issue is sustainable land management. If drought is a problem, land restoration is a solution. When you invest in land, you build resilience in your communities, and create opportunities to make land that would have otherwise been wasted or lost productive again.

“Restoring land is also fighting against poverty and irregular immigration. Many studies have established the link between land degradation and migration – in Haiti, Afghanistan, Somalia, and elsewhere. When people have no options they flee, whether to the next country or further afield.”

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How does land degradation and restoration intersect with climate change and biodiversity?

“Land emits carbon when degraded. Restoring land to its natural state can help put that carbon back where it belongs. In Africa – which emits only four per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions – repairing the soil is one of the best options for mitigating emissions. The continent is not overpopulated but 65 per cent of land has been degraded in 70 years.

“Biodiversity is more obvious: when you degrade land, you degrade ecosystems and destroy habitats. The reverse is also true.

“Land, water, climate, biodiversity – they are all thoroughly interconnected.”

A view of palm and olive groves in the “green belt” area of Iraq’s central city of Karbala. Envisioned as a lush fortress against worsening desertification and sandstorms, the “green belt” stands as a wilted failure. 16 years after its inception, only a fraction of the 76-kilometre crescent-shaped strip of greenery has materialised. Photo: Agence France-Presse

The latest Global Land Outlook report calls for US$1.6 trillion in investment for land restoration over the next eight years. Looking at how hard it has been to mobilise finance for climate action, is that a realistic goal?

“For climate, we are talking about US$100 billion dollars of mostly public money that should flow from developed to developing countries. Here we are talking about the private sector, which has an interest in conserving the soil because it is the foundation of their business.

“Then there are the harmful subsidies driving land degradation. If we repurpose just one-fifth of these subsidies to actually restore and protect land, we could fight against climate change and biodiversity loss at the same time.”

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What are those harmful subsidies?

“Some countries subsidise chemicals that are being put into land. Irrational irrigation subsidies can lead to depleted water tables, such as in the Middle East and the Sahara. Removing such subsidies won’t do any significant harm to small consumers, but it may reduce the profit of the big companies in the short-term.”

Demonstrators take part in a climate protest outside the Credit Suisse Group AG headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland, on Friday, April 29, 2022. Photo: Bloomberg

What would you like to see as an outcome from the meeting next month?

“We cannot just keep lamenting about people dying of hunger or keep continuing to distribute food aid when more durable solutions are possible. We do have technologies for early warning systems, and insurance systems to help mitigate impacts.

“We must invest also in land restoration. It makes sense from every point of view – economic, business, socially, environmentally. We expect this meeting to make a major call to decision makers to rethink our systems.

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“How many millions more of hectares of forest are we going to destroy? For how much longer are we going to waste a third of the food we produce? How much longer are you going to produce animal feed when you have people dying of hunger?

“This is the generation that must turn the page and turn the tide. We are destroying the planet in one generation, and we don’t have three generations to fix it.”

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