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Executive Perspectives

EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: The New Black Gold – The True Value of Soil

3 July 2018

“Clearly, land has the potential to regenerate economies, create jobs and revitalize livelihoods. It has tangible economic and societal value, but land’s most often overlooked feature is its environmental value, such as acting as a carbon store, facilitating water flow and providing habitats for millions of the world’s species of animals and plants.”

By Monique Barbut, Executive Secretary of the UNCCD and Joao Campari, Global Leader of the Food Practice, WWF

We all know the rich are getting richer, but even a million dollars won’t get you very far any more. A recent report has found that in three major cities you’ll get no more than 275 square feet of land for US$1 million. Your plot in Hong Kong would be roughly the size of two school buses parked side by side. In New York, a little more, in Monaco a little less.

The average person thinks about the value of land in dollar terms because we are conditioned to think of land as a tradeable commodity, yet its value goes far beyond a dollar sign. Land is black gold, quite literally supporting our livelihoods. It is the resource on which nearly all of the world’s economies have grown and thrived. But we are depleting it at an alarming rate.

The plastics crisis has highlighted the effects our choices can have on nature. The same is true for what we eat. High-consumption lifestyles, amplified by continued population growth, are leading to unsustainable intensification and agricultural expansion – making our food the most extensive global driver of land degradation.

Back in 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted 17 potentially game-changing Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The aim is to both change livelihoods for the better and protect the planet by 2030.

However, progress towards achieving these goals has been slow. Next week ministers from around the world will attend the high-level forum on sustainable development in New York to review the SDGs. We need to see efforts intensified on all these goals but particularly number 15, Life on Land, which is failing due to a severe lack of action to date.

Land resources underpin success in achieving most – if not all – of the other goals, and failing will cost us dearly later. The degradation of the Earth’s land surface through human activities is negatively impacting 3.2 billion people on the planet. If by 2030 all of us are to enjoy decent lives – which we can and we should – then we must agree that as we improve our lives we also leave intact what little is left of this black gold.

Less than 25 per cent of the Earth’s land surface has escaped substantial impacts of human activity. By 2050, experts estimate this will fall to less than 10 per cent.

Clearly, land has the potential to regenerate economies, create jobs and revitalize livelihoods. It has tangible economic and societal value, but land’s most often overlooked feature is its environmental value, such as acting as a carbon store, facilitating water flow and providing habitats for millions of the world’s species of animals and plants.

We are already consuming more than 1.5 times the natural resources and services the planet can sustainably yield, and agriculture uses 34 per cent of the planet’s land. Under a business as usual scenario, population growth and rising consumption of high-impact foods require significant increases in food production by 2050. The conversion of land resources – forests and grasslands – to provide food and create jobs has led to deforestation, land degradation, water scarcity, climate change, and natural disasters. Moreover, decreasing productivity on degraded land exacerbates poverty and food insecurity – especially in low-income rural areas where people are most dependent on agriculture.

Following the same path will drive unsustainable levels of habitat conversion for agricultural purposes, pushing nature closer to the brink. This is unnecessary, especially when 30 per cent of farmland is under performing, degraded or abandoned, and approximately one-third of all food produce is wasted.

If we don’t address land use management and rehabilitate soils as we pursue these goals, we could see an increase in migration, war and conflict as vulnerable poor people are left with little choice but to fight or flee.

We are at a critical juncture

Rehabilitating degraded land for agriculture will reduce the need to encroach into and convert natural habitat, especially forests and grasslands. It’s really a no-brainer but there just isn’t enough emphasis put on it. Changing our agriculture is viewed as a difficult, costly task because it involves multiple stakeholders and requires a business case for farmers.

Three simple actions, if taken together, will get us very close to this vision; helping farmers to adopt new land use techniques, taking a landscape approach in our land use and providing financial incentives to enable these two changes to happen.

First, farmers, in particular smallholders in the developing countries, must be enabled to adopt agroecological practices to manage the health of their soil. Smallholders support at least 2 billion livelihoods that will benefit from these the goals.

To produce enough food efficiently, small farmers need land use practices such as rotating or mixing crops, composting and applying manure, as well as newer ideas such as precision management of water and nutrients driven by modern technology.

Second, governments and affected communities need to manage natural resource on a larger scale – at a landscape level – and through a more coordinated approach.

Bringing together multiple stakeholders – smallholders, communities, civil society small and medium enterprises, large corporations and regulators – to address land degradation would, at once, prevent serious disasters such as soil erosion and landslides as well as provide local communities with produce for food, fodder, and household necessities like thatch and sweeping brooms.

Lastly, financial incentives to promote these two changes are key. One solution is the newly created Impact Investment Fund for Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN Fund), which is investing in bankable projects on land rehabilitation and sustainable land management worldwide.

It is a private fund that is overcoming previously knotty policy issues. By working in tandem with public finance, it will take new financial risks and reach scale. The Fund will finance sustainable solutions through an approach that considers and manages trade-offs among competing land uses, individual interests and sectoral policies.

Land doesn’t grow on trees, but it does grow the trees and our food. It’s time to stop our ‘throw-away’ approach towards this precious, but rapidly declining, resource, and find ways to ensure land is rehabilitated and restored.

Managing it sustainably is the key to the better world to which we are all aspiring, whether you live in Hong Kong, New York or Monaco, Yoaunde, Belém or Borneo. But we are up against the clock.


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