On The Issue of Agriculture

Global population has accelerated to 7 billion much faster than previously forecasted. This rise is expected to continue until the mid-twentieth century. A caution to this forecast might be that since this current milestone has been achieved years sooner than expected, future levels and timeframe may also arrive sooner than anticipated as well.

“Drylands have an immense scientific, economic and social value. They are the habitat and source of livelihood for about one quarter of the earth’s population. It is estimated that these ecosystems cover one third of the earth total land surface and about half of this area is in economically productive use as range or agricultural land.”

UNCCD Secretariat, 1997

As global climate continues to change, the tropics continue to expand and the temperate zones continue to warm, global drylands will become even more threatened. On a planet of melting glaciers, overcrowded cities and rapidly increasing numbers of climate refugees throughout the developing world, food may become an economic battleground. And those who control production may very well control the world.

Desertification is closely related to climate, moisture and populations. Degradation of vegetation-cover decreases the carbon sequestration capacity of drylands, which, in turn, enables the release of greater quantities of “greenhouse gas” emissions into the atmosphere.

These factors combined impact global agricultural productivity. The following graphic provides a quick view of the global vulnerability to desertification around the world. From this view, it is only necessary to appreciate the prevalence of the threat and its distribution.

Rain provides the principal source of water for crop production in the more humid regions of the world where some 60% of the world’s food crops are grown. Rain-fed agriculture takes place on some 80% of the arable land and irrigated agriculture produces 40% of the world’s food crops on the remaining 20%. Shifts in precipitation would have obvious implications for agriculture and water resources and could present serious hardships in marginal areas.

“The physical processes of land degradation, biodiversity evolution or extinction, and climate change are intimately inter-twined, especially in drylands. Land degradation reduces natural vegetation cover, and affects productivity of crops, livestock and wildlife. Soil micro-organisms are also affected through soil erosion. The loss of biodiversity likewise undermines the environmental health of drylands and makes them more prone to further degradation. The vicious cycle fuels increased soil erosion, which causes increase in sedimentation of rivers and lakes. This contributes to the degradation of international waters and affects biodiversity in rivers, lakes and coastal ecosystems.

The Global Drylands Partnership, E. Bonkoungou

The single most important factor in sustainable farming today is preventing soil erosion and maintaining healthy soil. Agricultural biodiversity – the result of careful selection and inventive development of farmers whose food and livelihood security depends on the sustained management of this biodiversity – is vital to enable sustainable levels of food production.

Ironically, among human activities, agriculture is one of the largest producers of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is 22 times more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. The increased levels of both carbon dioxide and methane gases will contribute to increased levels of global warming.

From the UNEP Atlas of Our Changing Environment: Cropland

UNEP: Agriculture/Cropland

Droughts and floods already rank as the single most common cause of severe food shortages in developing countries. Roughly 80% of the world’s 1.2 billion poor are dependent on agriculture for their survival. Shifts in precipitation would have obvious implications for agriculture and water resources and could present serious hardships in marginal areas.

A “not-so-simple” reality is that population growth and climate change will likely contribute to increased incidences of droughts, desertification and flooding. These conditions will place global agricultural productivity under greater assault and food will soon become as valuable as oil.

Every country experiencing rapidly rising population shifts now recognizes that increased agricultural production must become a national priority. Agriculture is a critical issue for any nation concerned about food security, the livelihood and well-being of rural people, and long-term impacts on soil and water resources.

In a world of greater interdependency, a new reality model is needed to accommodate the exhaustion and depletion of our planet’s resource production capacity.

Our lives depend on it!