'World must reach zero net land degradation'

"We have to go beyond economics. It has to be profitable to planet Earth," UNCCD adviser urges at Ben-Gurion University conference.

Sinai Peninsula (brown, naturey) 521 (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Sinai Peninsula (brown, naturey) 521
(photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
In order to combat the ever-increasing threat of desertification on formerly fertile lands, the world’s citizens must work to achieve “zero net land degradation” – restoring as much land as has been disturbed, experts on the subject agreed.
“We admit that it is difficult to achieve zero land degradation, but fortunately – in quotes – we have a lot of degraded land,” said Prof. Uriel Safriel of Hebrew University, who is also head of Israel’s UNESCO Man and Biosphere program and is a focal point for the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).
Safriel was speaking at a press conference on Monday evening at the Drylands, Deserts and Desertification Fourth International Conference, on Implementing Rio+20 for the Drylands and Desertification, held at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev campus at Sde Boker. Not only do people need to reduce the rate at which land is being degraded every year, but they also need to offset the amount that has already been degraded by restoring now unusable land, according to Safriel.
“The desert is one of the places least affected by desertification on Earth,” Safriel said. “We have to look at areas that are not desert and be careful not to make them desert.”
As people continue to encroach upon dryland forests, additional lands that farmers begin to cultivate will fail – as forests are necessary to support agricultural land, according to Safriel.
One of the major results of desertification and land degradation in general is hunger and poverty, explained Luc Gnacadja, executive secretary of the UNCCD.
“Land degradation is one of the major causes of food insecurity,” Gnacadja said.
“If we want [small farmers] to do more we need to reach out to them and help them do more with their degraded lands.”
Land degradation has been driven by misplaced investments, and world leaders need to find a way to bridge the gap between activities happening on a grassroots level and where governments are placing public investments, Gnacadja argued. More attention specifically needs to go to dry forests, rather than rainforests, as much more of the Earth’s life is contained in these spaces, which are rapidly degrading into desert land, he explained.
Some ways to restore the land properly involve using drip irrigation techniques and fertilizers that increase efficiency, explained Prof. Rattan Lal, director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State University and adviser to the UNCCD.
“As long as we eat food we cannot discard agriculture,” Lal said. “Agriculture has to be the number one solution to the problem of mitigating climate change.”
While land restoration may not always be financially profitable, Lal argued that “we have go to look beyond the profit issue,” as land restoration is “a question of survival.”
Meanwhile, it is crucial to incentivize farmers to use modern technology as agricultural tools, but to ensure that they are using such tools wisely and without excess, Lal stressed.
“We have to go beyond economics,” he said. “It has to be profitable to planet Earth.”
A goal of the UNCCD is to achieve zero net land degradation by 2030, and beyond that year, to restore more than is degraded, Gnacadja explained.
“There is now a kind of understanding that no one can stand on the ground of being non-affected by land degradation,” he said, stressing that previously unaffected countries can no longer simply look on from afar.
“Land degradation has been for too long in the blind spot of the global plan for sustainability,” said Prof. Alon Tal, co-chairman of the Green Movement and a professor at BGU’s Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research.
He noted that desertification has for a long time been “the orphan of global environmental challenges.”
“For too long the world has seen this as a problem of Africa and Asia and one that doesn’t affect all of us,” he said.
Looking at the situation with some optimism, however, Tal stressed that the knowledge for soil conservation and renewable energy development does, in fact, exist.
“If you go around the planet you can see that trend does not need to be destiny,” he said.