Combating Desertification & Land Degradation

By Michael Doane June 16, 2020 | 5 MIN READ

Global Food

Sustainable Agriculture

Combating Desertification & Land Degradation

Climate Change

Soil and Crop Management

By Michael Doane June 16, 2020 | 5 MIN READ


We all have special days in our lives that we remember and celebrate – birthdays, anniversaries, holidays – as well as those remarkable people who always remember these special days and surprise us with a telephone call or a thoughtful card. I’ll admit I don’t routinely fill this role, but today, I’m happy to remind everyone that June 17, 2020 is indeed a day to remember: it is the United Nation’s global observance of Desertification and Drought Day.

desertification, Combating Desertification & Land Degradation

You might be thinking, “wait, what day is that?!” Well, on June 17 each year, people around the world concerned about the scourge of desertification, land degradation, and drought work to raise awareness and promote solutions to these important issues.

Think this day may not pertain to you? Think again. These intertwined issues of desertification and drought are related to broader issues such as the food we eat, farmer livelihoods, water quality, soil health, ethnic and gender diversity, wildlife biodiversity, refugees and social migration patterns, the rate of deforestation, and the impacts of a rapidly changing climate. This topic is the fulcrum to gain leverage for many of the positive changes you’d like to see in the world.

Put simply, as our consumption increases, the health of the land on which we produce food, cloth, and other goods decreases. Severe weather patterns, such as excessive rain or drought, can quickly degrade plant growth and cause soil erosion. Farm management practices, like grazing duration, excessive tillage, poor irrigation practices or leaving the land bare of plant growth, can instigate a decline in productivity.

Once soil deterioration starts, a downward spiral can ensue, causing a once productive landscape to look more like a desert. Deserts are harsh places to live – food production is difficult and people who find themselves in these places tend to move on. Hence our deserts become deserted.

At this time, over one-half of the global agricultural lands used for food production are considered moderately to severely degraded. Furthermore, they are being abandoned at an unsustainable rate and many are challenging or impossible to restore.

soil degradation

Depending on the type and extent of degradation, the land may never be suitable again for food production or it could take several decades to rebuild the topsoil. In China, for instance, roughly 20% of the productive farmland soils are now contaminated with heavy metal pollution. A large portion of this land may never again be fit for food production, but other areas may be rehabilitated to serve as livestock feed in the future. China, India, and other countries with severe land degradation issues are increasing imports of certain food items, which in turn, drives agricultural expansion in countries such as Brazil or Indonesia. Of course, some former ag lands reverting to nature could be a benefit to biodiversity, climate, and broader ecosystem health.

But restoration work takes time, concerted effort and considerable nuance.

It is imperative that we reverse the desertification trend to avoid creating more lands in need of restoration.

The high rate of abandonment is one of the main drivers for converting existing forests or open savannahs to agriculture. Taken together, this land-use change makes up the largest portion of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the global food system. Without meaningful change to this degrade-abandon-convert trend, experts predict we will burn through another 400 million hectares – an area twice the size of Mexico – at the expense of natural ecosystems – over the next 30 years.

desertification, Combating Desertification & Land Degradation

Surface land use chart courtesy of Growing Better Global Report, Food and Land Use Coalition (2019).

For my organization – The Nature Conservancy – the trend is deeply alarming and unacceptable. We face not only an unprecedented loss of nature, but also food security and economic challenges if we can’t reverse this trend. Consider:

  • Today, the expansion of agriculture into natural habitats is the largest driver of biodiversity loss globally.
  • Plus, after 10,000 years of agriculture, virtually none of the new land coming into production today is the highest quality land for food production.
  • In addition to the priceless loss of biodiverse species, these inefficient land-use dynamics cost the global economy several trillion dollars annually.

Thankfully, there is a business and science case for change that is gaining traction. Actors throughout the global supply chain are taking steps to slow the conversion trend and deploy a suite of regenerative management practices to restore existing agricultural areas.

Planting diverse cover crops annually to improve soil health is perhaps the one regenerative management practice that if widely adopted, could do the most to restore degraded croplands.

In the U.S., for example, the past decade has seen small but steady increases in farmers utilizing cover crops to maintain and restore croplands. While every farm has a slightly different set of circumstances to consider, most farms will start making more money by routinely using cover crops by the third year of adoption, if not sooner.

Over the next decade, our task at TNC is to assist the farmers and ranchers who have successfully restored their lands utilizing these regenerative soil health management practices to transmit this knowledge through various means to millions of their peers around the world.

desertification, Combating Desertification & Land Degradation

We can all play a small role in this process, too. Simply by eating a more diverse diet – trying something new – we will send market signals to food producers to incorporate more diversity into our agricultural landscapes. Several thought-leading chefs are taking “farm to fork” considerations even further by using new ingredients to support the health of our soils – from dirt to dinner, if you will.

We are encouraged by the growing attention to these issues, especially among practitioners. Farmers, ranchers and pastoralists around the world are recognizing they can move beyond simply sustaining their land resources. They can adopt management practices which restore and revitalize the health of ecosystems.

Today, as we observe Desertification and Drought Day while still in the grips of a global health crisis, we do so to call attention to this important issue.

But I hope that I’ll have the occasion to remind everyone in ten years that June 17, 2030, is a day for celebration – a celebration of a decade well spent embracing the solutions to this vitally important global challenge.

desertification, Combating Desertification & Land Degradation

Want to learn a few facts about desertification? See our infographic below to learn more:

desertification, Combating Desertification & Land Degradation