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Visions of a sustainable food future

Louis Verchot, Director, Soils and Landscapes for Sustainability Research Area

“If the current trend continues, land degradation alone could reduce agricultural production by 12% and increase food prices by 30% in the next 25 years”

Restoring land and livelihoods: a call for public and private sectors

Traveling across the tropics, I’ve seen a vast array of situations where poverty and the failure to value ecosystems have left landscapes in deplorable conditions. Fortunately, land restoration is now a priority in the global development agenda.

Peatland fires in Southeast Asia in 2015 brought the topic to the fore, through the headline-grabbing haze events and health catastrophes that ensued. However, most landscape degradation is insidious: soils erode over decades; several hectares of natural vegetation are lost at a time; nutrients are depleted with each harvest.

Land degradation is, therefore, a bit like the problem of climate change, provoking rare crises and mostly characterized by slow, incremental change that belies its seriousness. Today, roughly 50% of the world’s crop and grazing lands are moderately to severely degraded. If this had happened overnight, there would have been outcry, but it crept up on us. If the current trend continues, land degradation alone could reduce agricultural production by 12% and increase food prices by 30% in the next 25 years.

The issue has broader implications. Recent estimates suggest that ecosystem services are worth US$145 trillion annually, but that land degradation over the past 25 years has shaved 17% off of this value. This is bad news for all of us, but particularly those living in rural and highland areas of the tropics, who often directly depend on these services for their food and livelihoods.

CIAT has been working to solve problems in degraded landscapes for decades, through its work on improved forage and livestock systems and focus on cassava – a crop of last resort in many degraded landscapes. But now, in response to the scale of the challenge, we’re taking it up a level. Our Soils and Landscapes for Sustainability (SoiLS) group is working on improving nutrient management and increasing soil organic matter on farms, and a range of other activities aimed at restoring fertility and enhancing productivity.

Encouragingly, we’ve been able to show that restoration can be profitable in humid and semi-arid areas with moderate degradation in Latin America. This opens the door to private financing – an innovative feature of Initiative 20x20, which aims to restore 20 million hectares of land in the region by 2020. CIAT is providing technical and scientific backstopping with partners at the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE).

But restoration of severely degraded lands in semi-arid areas will continue to require public financing. The good news is that public and private pledges in Initiative 20x20 already exceed $1.1 billion. We’re also contributing to the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100), which aims to restore 100 million hectares in 21 countries by 2030, by engaging political, technical, and financial partners.

These efforts should help us demonstrate that land degradation can be halted and reversed in ways that are productive, profitable, and sustainable. Taking these to scale will require innovation and new knowledge. We’ll also need better policy implementation and cost-effective monitoring systems. CIAT is bringing its different teams together to support the engagement of countries and non-state entities in this effort.

Ultimately, fixing a problem is always more expensive than keeping it from happening. So we also need better incentives to prevent land degradation, and technical solutions that meet the needs of farmers. With the importance of soils, landscapes, and ecosystems now firmly on the global agenda, I believe we’re probably in the strongest position ever to achieve that.

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