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Land Degradation 

By Emilie Baliozian


Land degradation refers to decline in the health and productive capacity of the land. There are both human and natural causes of soil degradation. Natural causes include harsh weather conditions (drought, excessive flooding, etc. ). Human causes include agricultural, industrial and commercial pollution, toxic chemicals, urban expansion, deforestation, and unsustainable agricultural practices like forest conversion, over-cultivation and overgrazing (IPCC).


Why care about soil? Healthy soil helps fight climate change by storing carbon and lowering greenhouse gas emissions; it filters water and traps pollutants to prevent them from seeping into groundwater; it captures water to grow crops; and it hosts a quarter of the planet’s biodiversity. Healthy soil means our natural cycles (water, carbon, other nutrients) can flow freely throughout our natural systems and keep providing the food and ecosystem services we need to stay healthy (UN).


Land degradation has accelerated in the last two centuries mainly due to poor land management and the increase in agricultural and livestock production. Yet these practices are stressing the world’s arable lands essential for food, water and quality air. As soil degrades and arid land expands, the productivity of croplands declines, water sources dry up and populations are forced to migrate to more hospitable areas (WHO).


These changes have dramatic impacts on planetary and human health, putting long-term food security, disease management, water supplies and wildlife diversity under threat. According to the FAO, already one third of the world’s farmable land disappeared in the last four decades and over 90% could become degraded by 2050.


95% of the food we eat comes from the soil – making it critical to adopt Sustainable Soil Management (SSM) practices, designed by the FAO to restore degraded soil, implement resilient agricultural practices, and progressively improve soil quality and minimize soil contamination.


Land degradation is also an issue addressed in many Sustainable Development Goals, making it imperative for UN Member States to take action at national, regional and international levels: SDG 15 (Life on Land), SDG 1 (No Poverty), SDG 2 (Zero Hunger), SDG 5 (Gender Equality), SDG 12 (Responsible Production and Consumption), SDG 13 (Climate Action).