Evidence Growing for Need to Adapt to Changing Climate Conditions Now

July 5, 2018

The value of – and need for – land management practices that can build soil quality, improve production on existing croplands and make agriculture operations more resilient to the changing conditions ahead is underscored every week, if not every day, with the disclosure of scientific findings that cast a cloud of uncertainty across the horizon.

The world’s first comprehensive evidence-based assessment of land degradation and restoration, which was recently issued by the UN-backed Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), says worsening land degradation caused by human activities is undermining the well-being of two fifths of humanity.

Because of the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services (such as climate regulation and food and water production), land degradation is also driving species extinction, intensifying climate change and contributing at high levels to mass human migration and increased conflict.

The IBPES assessment states that global crop yields could fall by as much as 10 percent by 2050, even as the UN projects that the world’s population will grow by another 3.1 billion –28 percent more than the current 7.6 billion people – in the same period.

Elsewhere, a new World Atlas of Desertification from the EU’s Joint Research Center (JRC) confirms the growing threats laid out by the IPBES report, showing that land degradation has increased dramatically over the past 20 years and highlighting the urgency to adopt corrective measures, such as climate smart agriculture.

Last issued 20 years ago, the atlas today provides the first comprehensive, evidence-based assessment of land degradation at a global level. It shows that more than 75 percent of the Earth’s land area is already degraded; with an annual area degradation rate totaling half the size of the European Union (with Africa and Asia being the most affected), more than 90 percent could become degraded by 2050.

In a first-of-its-kind study, scientists have combined an array of NASA satellite observations of Earth with data on human activities to map locations where freshwater is changing around the globe and why.

A study published last month in the journal Nature finds that Earth’s wetland areas are getting wetter and dry areas are getting drier due to a variety of factors. These include human water management, such as pumping groundwater out of an aquifer faster than it is replenished; climate change; and intensifying natural cycles, including wet and dry periods attributable to El Niño and La Niña atmospheric events.

The study is based on 14 years of NASA satellite observations, precipitation data, U.S. Geological Survey imagery, irrigation maps, and published reports of human activities related to agriculture, mining and reservoir operations. Among the disturbing trends found by experts is a rate of groundwater depletion that raises concerns about the sustainability of food production in heavily farmed areas of the world, like California’s San Joaquin Valley, where scientists have also found that ground levels are sinking.

The warnings these studies convey are daunting. However, the problems they indicate are not without solutions. There is growing acceptance for practices that can produce more from less land, using less water and minimizing the loss of nutrients from the soil. For example, a provision in the Senate version of the current farm bill under consideration by Congress would establish a relevant pilot project managed by USDA. If taken up, the project would promote the use of advanced farming practices to capture carbon in soil, improve soil health and crop resilience and ultimately lower the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.

The farm bill provision is among initiatives being undertaken across the nation that recognize the impending threats to our productive capability. SfL has been facilitating farmer-led, multi-stakeholder adaptive management planning initiatives at the state level. Policy makers at all levels are called upon to facilitate the work that needs to be done to make agricultural landscapes more resilient in sustainably producing food, feed, fiber and ecosystem services, all while simultaneously reducing and sequestering greenhouse gases.

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