Healthy people Healthy landscapes

Agricultural land, much more than just food production

©Markus Winkler

©Markus Winkler

©Markus Winkler

Agricultural land provides many more benefits to society than just food. Agricultural land harbours a vast array of soil biodiversity, which determines nutrient and water cycles and therefore plays a role in climate regulation and water supply. The ecosystem functions of agricultural land provide services to farmers and to society as a whole.

The better agricultural landscapes are managed, the more services to society are generated.

As much as 40% of the global land area is devoted to agriculture, of which about a third—14% of all land—is under crop production. An estimated 40% of this land is observed to be degrading, which can reduce food production as well as the supply of other ecosystem services.

The global increase in agricultural land has only increased by roughly 10% over half a century, although food production has increased by 270% over the same period. This dramatic increase in production has come primarily through increased and improved use of inputs: fertilizer, irrigation, mechanisation, chemicals and new breeds.

However, the farming practices that have been developed contribute to land degradation, which risks undermining the long-term viability of food production.

©Markus Winkler
©Hamish Weir

Although the global increase in agricultural land appears modest, it has had a disproportionate impact on a few critical ecosystems, particularly in the tropics.

Mössingen, a small town in the South of Germany ©Milada Vigerova

Mössingen, South Germany ©Milada Vigerova

Mössingen, South Germany ©Milada Vigerova

World Desertification and Drought Day

Desertification and Drought Day 2020, a UN observance day held on 17 June each year, will focus on changing public attitudes to the leading driver of desertification and land degradation: humanity’s relentless production and consumption.

While global food production currently exceeds global requirement for everyone to enjoy a healthy diet, 800 million people are nevertheless food insecure and their governments face pressure to continue raising food production.

If ongoing efforts to raise food yields continue to degrade agricultural land they will add to the pressure to convert natural habitat for food production. A principle of sustainable agriculture is that it does not lead to conversion of habitat.

More on IUCN's work: Agriculture and Land Health (link); 'Soil biodiversity and soil organic carbon: keeping drylands alive' (PDF); 'Biodiversity and the Great Green Wall' (PDF); Sustainability and Inclusion Strategy for Growth Corridors in Africa (project); 'Land Degradation Neutrality: implications and opportunities for conservation' (PDF);

“If we keep producing and consuming as usual, we will eat into the planet’s capacity to sustain life until there is nothing left but scraps. We all need to make better choices about what we eat and what we wear to help protect and restore the land.”
Ibrahim Thiaw, Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification

A principle of sustainable agriculture is that it does not lead to habitat conversion. One of the ways this can be avoided is by maintaining and enhancing productivity through careful management of soil biodiversity

Tigrayan Landscape in Northern Ethiopia, showing large scale land restoration actions through sustainable farming and soil conservation measures   ©Jonathan Davis

Tigrayan Landscape in Northern Ethiopia, showing large scale land restoration actions through sustainable farming and soil conservation measures ©Jonathan Davis

Tigrayan Landscape in Northern Ethiopia, showing large scale land restoration actions through sustainable farming and soil conservation measures ©Jonathan Davis

Sustainable agriculture is that which satisfies the needs of today without compromising those of the future.

This implies management of resources, and development of technologies and institutions, that meet human needs now and in the future, while conserving land and water, protecting genetic resources, and avoiding biodiversity loss, while being economically viable and socially acceptable.

Momentum for more sustainable agriculture is growing worldwide, although there is insufficient consensus over relevant indicators and targets to monitor progress on all aspects of sustainability.

Achieving an appropriate balance between the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainability requires urgent action to improve the scientific foundation for the conservation values of sustainable agriculture.

This depends on a comprehensive understanding of biodiversity in agriculture at the ecosystem, species and genetic levels, and both the on-farm and off-farm values. Rewarding the societal benefits of sustainably managed agricultural landscapes is an important opportunity for incentivising environmental stewardship.

©Claudia Fernandez

©Claudia Fernandez

©Claudia Fernandez

©Sebastian Staines

©Sebastian Staines

©Sebastian Staines

Momentum for more sustainable agriculture is growing worldwide

Achieving an appropriate balance between the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainability requires urgent action to improve the scientific foundation for the conservation values of sustainable agriculture

©Alex Minaya

©Alex Minaya

A forthcoming IUCN report presents evidence of progress towards sustainable agriculture and identifies pathways to large-scale adoption of sustainable practices, focusing on land health as a high potential building block.

The report provides insights into:
1. Strengthening environmental stewardship in the agricultural sector;
2. Restoration of soil biodiversity and land health;
3. Rewarding ecosystem services to incentivise sustainable farming;
4. Mainstreaming agro-ecology approaches and sustainable management of agricultural landscapes
5. Promoting change throughout the global agriculture system to enhance sustainability

Grethel Aguilar, IUCN Acting Director General: Message for Desertification and Drought Day 2020

Grethel Aguilar, IUCN Acting Director General: Message for Desertification and Drought Day 2020

IUCN

World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought

IUCN Global Ecosystem Management Programme

Produced by IUCN, June 2020. Hashtags for social media #DesertificationAndDroughtDay #FoodFeedFibre 

Visit the IUCN Library for further knowledge on healthy landscapes

Visit the IUCN Library for further knowledge on healthy landscapes