`Report: Food System Reform Can Reverse Deforestation and Desertification - Olive Oil Times

Report: Food System Reform Can Reverse Deforestation and Desertification

By Paolo DeAndreis
May. 31, 2022 15:08 UTC

The human pop­u­la­tion’s impact on land and nat­ural resources is so rel­e­vant that food sys­tems are respon­si­ble for 70 per­cent of global fresh­wa­ter use and 80 per­cent of defor­esta­tion.

They also account for a sig­nif­i­cant quota of green­house gas emis­sions which are actively alter­ing the world’s cli­mate.

It is no longer enough to pre­vent fur­ther dam­age to the land; it is nec­es­sary to act deci­sively to reverse and recover what we have lost.- Ibrahim Thiaw, exec­u­tive sec­re­tary, UNCCD

Food sys­tems are con­sid­ered the main source of bio­di­ver­sity loss on all con­ti­nents.

These are just some of the find­ings from the lat­est major report pub­lished by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

See Also:Record Heatwave and Drought in Pakistan Threaten Crops and Olive Farming

In the Global Land Outlook — Second Edition, Land Restoration for Recovery and Resilience (GLO2), which took five years to write, the UNCCD inves­ti­gated the con­se­quences of neglect­ing soil and bio­di­ver­sity. It also rec­om­mended actions to reform food sys­tems, restore land and fur­ther sus­tain­able devel­op­ment.

The report noted how cur­rent land man­age­ment threat­ens the health and the con­tin­ued sur­vival of many species on Earth, includ­ing humans.

More than half of the global annual GDP, or approx­i­mately $44 tril­lion (€42 tril­lion), wrote the UNCCD sci­en­tists, depends greatly or mod­er­ately on nature cap­i­tal.”

According to the report’s authors, the eco­nomic returns of restor­ing land and reduc­ing degra­da­tion, green­house gas emis­sions and bio­di­ver­sity loss could be as high as $125 to $140 tril­lion (€119 to €133 tril­lion) every year.

To bet­ter grasp the mag­ni­tude of those num­bers, the researchers iden­ti­fied three dif­fer­ent year 2050 sce­nar­ios,” whose out­come will depend on the abil­ity to reform the global approach to land restora­tion and land man­age­ment.

In a base­line sce­nario, with no rel­e­vant reform, 16 mil­lion square kilo­me­ters, almost as large as Latin America, will suf­fer from con­tin­ued land degra­da­tion with no improve­ments in green­house gas emis­sions.

In the restora­tion sce­nario, with 50 mil­lion square kilo­me­ters restored against the 10 mil­lion pledged, most devel­op­ing coun­tries would see their crop yields increase between 5 and 10 per­cent. Soil water hold­ing capac­ity also would increase by 4 per­cent in rain­fed crop­lands, and 11 per­cent of bio­di­ver­sity loss would be averted.

The most opti­mistic sce­nario, dubbed restora­tion and pro­tec­tion, includes active strate­gies involv­ing land restora­tion and soil con­ser­va­tion, bio­di­ver­sity pro­tec­tion, water reg­u­la­tion and car­bon stocks.

In such a sce­nario, 4 mil­lion square kilo­me­ters of land would be regained, a third of the pro­jected bio­di­ver­sity loss in the base­line sce­nario would be avoided and seven years’ worth of green­house gas emis­sions would be averted.

The report high­lighted how agri­cul­ture, which accounts for roughly 37 per­cent of total global land use, can play a deci­sive role. Human activ­i­ties have sig­nif­i­cantly altered nat­ural processes occur­ring on 75 per­cent of all land.

Due to many dif­fer­ent causes, such as cur­rent food pro­duc­tion prac­tices, 25 per­cent of the land is con­sid­ered sub­stan­tially degraded and has lost at least some of its pro­duc­tiv­ity. This already impacts the well-being of at least 3.2 bil­lion peo­ple.

It is no longer enough to pre­vent fur­ther dam­age to the land; it is nec­es­sary to act deci­sively to reverse and recover what we have lost,” wrote UNCCD Executive Secretary Ibrahim Thiaw in the report’s intro­duc­tion.


The authors noted how a series of widely-deployed unsus­tain­able prac­tices in agri­cul­ture have proven to con­tribute to land degra­da­tion.

Among them are the use of pes­ti­cides and fer­til­iz­ers, large-scale monocrop­ping, over­graz­ing by live­stock, defor­esta­tion, drain­ing of wet­lands, irri­ga­tion and exces­sive ground­wa­ter extrac­tion, lack of ground cover for extended peri­ods, com­paction from heavy machin­ery and inver­sion of soils through till­ing.

These prac­tices often bring increased yields in the short-term, but have sig­nif­i­cant and often irre­versible long-term eco­log­i­cal costs,” the authors wrote.

For food sys­tems to become sus­tain­able, a rad­i­cal shift in pol­icy and prac­tice is needed,” said Heather Elaydi, a food, land, and water researcher and author of the GLO2 work­ing paper Food System Resilience and Land Restoration.

Current food pro­duc­tion prac­tices are cen­tered around a largely inten­sive, indus­trial model that has led to adverse impacts on the envi­ron­ment,” she told Olive Oil Times. A move toward more sus­tain­able prac­tices, such as regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture, which pro­motes healthy soil, is needed on the pro­duc­tion end.”

Shorter food dis­tri­b­u­tion chains and stronger local and regional mar­kets are also a big part of sus­tain­abil­ity,” Elaydi added. In terms of con­sump­tion, sus­tain­abil­ity requires a move away from highly-processed foods and a reduc­tion in con­sump­tion of meat.”

Regenerative agri­cul­ture focuses on cul­ti­va­tion and graz­ing prac­tices that improve soil health by restor­ing bio­di­ver­sity, rebuild­ing organic mat­ter, increas­ing soil fer­til­ity, pro­mot­ing nutri­ent cycling, increas­ing water infil­tra­tion and reten­tion, reduc­ing ero­sion and stor­ing car­bon.

Methods that can be con­sid­ered part of regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture include chem­i­cal-free or low-chem­i­cal agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion, cul­ti­va­tion of indige­nous vari­eties, min­i­mal soil tillage, agro­forestry, agro­bio­di­ver­sity and crop-live­stock inte­gra­tion.

See Also:Climate Change Threatens Steep-Slope Agriculture

Regenerative agri­cul­ture rep­re­sents an inno­v­a­tive approach that is slowly gain­ing trac­tion among small and medium food pro­duc­ers in many coun­tries.

It aims to pre­serve soil health and prop­er­ties, thus pro­tect­ing farm­land fer­til­ity. Still, it also aims to take care of for­mer and aban­doned farm­lands in terms of refor­esta­tion and restora­tion of wet­land ecosys­tems.

Some exam­ples of regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture are per­ma­nent cover crops to pro­tect the soil, actions to enhance bio­di­ver­sity, and preser­va­tion of peren­nial crops.

Essentially, [regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture are] forms of agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion that work hand in hand with nature,” Elaydi said. If we are talk­ing about mak­ing food sys­tems more resilient, this requires sus­tain­able meth­ods.”

Continuing on the path we are on now will lead to fur­ther soil degra­da­tion and other resource deple­tion or pol­lu­tion,” she added. Regenerative agri­cul­ture can help ensure that nature is able to sup­port food sys­tems for future gen­er­a­tions.”

This approach is still some­what alien to most indus­trial pro­duc­tion, as some of the big­ger play­ers in the food sys­tem… reg­u­larly use envi­ron­men­tally harm­ful prac­tices,” Elaydi noted.

For olive grow­ing, regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture is not a nov­elty. This approach is used in some California olive groves and is also applied in some groves in Andalusia, the largest olive oil-pro­duc­ing region in the world.

According to the 2020 Whole Foods Market report, in Andalusia, this approach reduced soil ero­sion by 95 per­cent in some olive groves.

The GLO2 lists many other rel­e­vant exam­ples, such as what is hap­pen­ing in the semi-arid steppe envi­ron­ment of the Altiplano Estepario in south­ern Spain, where water is scarce, and cli­mate con­di­tions are extreme.

On the alti­plano, an ambi­tious dry-land restora­tion effort to halt deser­ti­fi­ca­tion and soil ero­sion, and revert such effects, started in 2014.

The pro­ducer asso­ci­a­tion (AlVelAl) sup­ports farm­ers to tran­si­tion to regen­er­a­tive farm­ing prac­tices across the Altiplano,” the report authors wrote. Techniques employed include con­struct­ing swales, restor­ing ter­races, plant­ing green cover crops and cre­at­ing wind­breaks to con­serve soil and water and enhance bio­di­ver­sity.”

By 2020, 140,000 trees had been planted, 200,000 seeds sown by drone and two thriv­ing coop­er­a­tives estab­lished that process pro­duce from AlVelAl farm­ers,” they added. The aim is to strengthen sup­ply chain links to AlVelAl foods, which sells regen­er­a­tively grown prod­ucts directly to con­sumers, includ­ing almonds, pis­ta­chios, wal­nuts, wine, honey, aro­matic herbs and olive oil.”

While no action against cli­mate change and global warm­ing is likely to suc­ceed if agri­cul­ture is not reformed, many prac­tices of sus­tain­able farm­ing are at hand and in many cases, they can even reverse cur­rent declines.

Elaydi agreed, fur­ther sug­gest­ing that nec­es­sary reform to indus­trial-scale monocrop­ping and over-till­ing is essen­tial in the face of ris­ing tem­per­a­tures.

These large, exposed areas with lit­tle pro­tec­tion from the ele­ments or suf­fi­cient nutri­ents from mul­ti­ple crop rota­tions, trees, or cover crops, will be vul­ner­a­ble to land degra­da­tion,” Elaydi said.

However, sus­tain­able meth­ods, such as agro­forestry, cover crops, or crop-live­stock inte­gra­tion, can not only pro­tect soil from the impacts of cli­mate change but can help restore some of the dam­age that has already been done,” she added.

Given the severe impact of indus­trial-level live­stock and the grow­ing meat con­sump­tion rates on the planet, researchers noted how plant-based diets should be pro­moted at all lev­els. In addi­tion, pro­tein-rich food alter­na­tives, such as legumes, should be con­sid­ered.

Legume crops can also serve as alter­na­tive ways to pre­serve nitro­gen with­out syn­thetic fer­til­iz­ers,” Elaydi said.

Governments should act, said the Palestinian-Canadian researcher.

More sus­tain­able diets through edu­ca­tion, sub­si­dies, and bet­ter wages should be pro­vided to dis­cour­age con­sump­tion of highly processed and resource-inten­sive foods and encour­age diets rich in chem­i­cal-free, locally-grown plants where pos­si­ble,” she con­cluded.


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