Land degradation is the deterioration or loss of the productive capacity of the soils for the present and future.
When land is degraded, it is a global challenge that affects everyone through issues like climate change, food insecurity, environmental hazards, loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, and higher food prices.
Today, land degradation is occurring at an alarming rate, and it is one of the worlds’ most pressing environmental problems.
Currently over a billion people are affected by it every day.
Without action on our part, the problem will only get worse.
In this blog, we’ll discuss what you should know about the impacts of land degradation and how it’s affecting everyone as we speak.
1. What is land degradation?
According to ScienceDirect, land degradation is defined as the temporary or permanent decline in the productive capacity of the land, and the diminution of productive potential, including its major land-uses (ex: rain-fed arable, irrigation, forests), its farming systems (ex: smallholder subsistence), and its value as an economic resource.
2. Is land degradation a new phenomenon?
Land degradation is unfortunately not new.
It has accompanied humanity since agriculture was widely adopted during the Neolithic era, which was roughly 10,000 to 7,500 years ago.
This time frame is also when the population increased, and there is evidence that the levels of greenhouse gases (particularly carbon dioxide and methane gas) began to increase more than 3,000 years ago.
3. What causes land degradation?
Land degradation is caused by agricultural use, deforestation, and climate change.
The following list includes all of the potential causes for land degradation:
Land clearance (clearcutting and deforestation)
Agricultural depletion of soil nutrients through poor farming practices
Livestock including overgrazing and overdrafting
Urban sprawl and commercial development
Quarrying of stone, sand, ore, and minerals
Increase in field size due to economies of scale, reducing shelter for wildlife as hedgerows and copses disappear
Exposure of naked soil after harvesting by heavy equipment
Monoculture, which destabilizes the local ecosystem
Dumping of non-biodegradable trash, such as plastics
Loss of soil carbon
4. Is land degradation caused by humans?
There have been various threats of land degradation that have been known for centuries.
These include water, wind, mechanical erosion, and physical, chemical, and biological degradation.
However, in addition to these types of threats, there are four others that have emerged in the last 50 years.
Pollution: this is often chemical pollution due to agricultural, industrial, mining, or commercial activities
Loss of arable land area: this is due to urban construction, road building, land conversion, agricultural expansion, etc.
Artificial radioactivity: this is from nuclear weapon testing or improper radioactive waste disposal
Land-use constraints: these are associated with armed conflicts
While these are broad categories, in general, there are more than 36 types of land degradation that can be traced back to human activities (see the list below).
Human activities that can induce or aggravate land degradation:
5. What does land degradation mean for the planet?
Ultimately, land degradation stresses the world’s arable land and pastures that provide food, water, and quality air to all of the people living on the planet.
Land degradation and desertification impact human health in complex ways, and when land is degraded, all of these are interrupted.
Food security and production are reduced, water sources dry up, and populations are forced to move to other (more hospitable) areas.
6. What are the effects of desertification on human health?
Desertification has numerous potential disastrous effects on human health.
Higher threats of malnutrition from reduced food and water supplies
More water and food-borne diseases that result from poor hygiene and lack of clean water
Respiratory diseases caused by atmospheric dust from wind erosion and other air pollutants
The spread of infectious diseases as populations migrate
7. Why is the loss of soil carbon such a big issue?
The world’s soil stores more carbon than the planet’s biomass and atmosphere combine.
Soil organic carbon is essentially biodiversity as it includes microbes, fungi, invertebrates, root matter, decomposing vegetation, etc.
The loss of soil carbon is one of the principal signs of land degradation and the leading challenges for sustainable development, biodiversity conservation, and mitigating and adapting to climate change.
Ultimately, when land is degraded, soil carbon may be released into the atmosphere (along with nitrous oxide) which makes land degradation one of the biggest contributors to climate change.
In fact, roughly a quarter of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are generated from agriculture, forest, and other land-use sectors.
8. How do you know if your soil is degraded?
Soil is a dynamic entity and its quality cannot be determined based on one single test alone.
However, there are a number of indicators that you can use to evaluate soil fertility and quality.
Several of these indicators include:
depth of soil
water holding capacity
infiltration and bulk density
If this list seems impossibly long, don’t worry.
The United States Department of Agriculture has a Soil Health Assessment Kit to help you analyze your soil.
9. How do you prevent land degradation?
Land degradation is a huge issue that prevents soils around the world from sustaining agriculture.
Sadly, it’s only beginning to receive the attention it deserves.
If you’re looking to help prevent or resolve existing land degradation, you should turn to the broad array of agroecology practices that can be used to increase carbon in the soil.
increasing plant diversity
adding organic matter to the soil (cover crops, animal manure, green manure, compost, etc)
fallows (i.e. resting soil for a year or more)
carefully managing fertilizer and pesticide use
increasing ground cover with cover crops and perennials
crop rotation (i.e. changing the crops you grow in each area annually)
soil remediation (i.e. removing contaminates)
sustainable pasture management through managed herd mobility
sustainable forest management
Furthermore, there are numerous known and even Indigenous practices that can help revive the soil.
As long as the land is given the correct support, there’s no reason you can’t help bring it back to life.
What’s more is that land soil management is one of the most cost-effective climate change mitigation options.
If you increase just 1 percent of the carbon stocks in the top meter of soil, then it would be higher than the amount corresponding to the annual anthropogenic CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning.
This provides an opportunity to reverse land degradation and increase soil organic carbon.
It’s low-cost but provides multiple benefits: climate change mitigation and adaptation, conservation of biodiversity, and increase food production.
Moving forward, countries should invest in sustainable land management.
This process can be accelerated through policy and financial instruments.
Monitoring and increasing the soil organic carbon is one way to prevent and repair desertification, biodiversity loss, and climate change mitigation and adaptation.
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