Dirt Isn't So Cheap After All

Soil erosion is the "silent global crisis" that is undermining food production and water availability, as well as being responsible for 30 percent of the greenhouse gases driving climate change.

BROOKLIN, Canada - "We are overlooking soil as the foundation of all life on Earth," said Andres Arnalds, assistant director of the Icelandic Soil Conservation Service.

"Soil and vegetation is being lost at an alarming rate around the globe, which in turn has devastating effects on food production and accelerates climate change," Arnalds told IPS from Selfoss, Iceland, host city of the International Forum on Soils, Society and Climate Change which starts Friday.

Along with many other international partner institutions, Iceland is marking the centenary of its Soil Conservation Service by convening this forum of experts.

Every year, some 100,000 square kilometres of land loses its vegetation and becomes degraded or turns into desert.

"Land degradation and desertification may be regarded as the silent crisis of the world, a genuine threat to the future of humankind," Arnalds said.

Food production has kept pace with population growth by increasing 50 percent between 1980 and 2000. But it is an open question whether there will be enough food in 2050 with an estimated three billion more mouths to feed.

That means more food has to be produced within the next 50 years than during the last 10,000 years combined he noted.

"Global food production per hectare is already declining," said Zafar Adeel, director of the United Nations University's Canadian-based International Network on Water, Environment and Health.

There are a number of reasons for this decline, including the fact that soil degradation is producing growing shortages of water. Soil and vegetation act as a sponge that holds and gradually releases water, Adeel explained.

The newest challenge to food production and conserving land and water resources is the boom in vegetable-based biofuels, says Andrew Campbell, Australia's first National Landcare Facilitator.

"Soils are under greater pressure than ever before," Campbell said in an interview. "Governments around the world are subsidising crops to produce biofuels."

Hundreds of millions of square kilometers of farmland will soon be used to meet a small part of the world's rapidly growing thirst for fuel. And even if rainforests aren't being cleared to grow biofuel crops, as is the case in parts of Asia and South America, they offer little if any net environmental benefits, Campbell argues.

Another reason to rethink the stampede to biofuel: These crops use a lot of water. In future, there will simply not be enough water to grow the food we need, he says.

By most analyses, biofuels do little to help out the problem of climate change, but preventing deforestation and soil loss the quickest and easiest way to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

Paradoxically, the environmental problem of climate change may finally move the world to act on another long-term fundamental environmental issue -- the protection of soils.

Land degradation and desertification may account for as much as about 30 percent of the world's greenhouse gas releases, according to researcher Rattan Lal of Ohio State University. These changes to the land also alter the water, temperature and energy balance of the planet.

And climate change makes land degradation much worse and more extensive, mainly through changes in precipitation and increased evaporation that trigger more extreme weather.

Carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas and "keeping carbon molecules in the soil and in forests and grasslands is the quickest and best bang for the buck in addressing climate change," Adeel said.

There is money to be made in the new carbon markets by sequestering or storing carbon in the soil and vegetation. As much as 20 percent of anticipated net fossil fuel emissions between now and 2050 could be stored in this way, said Maryam Niamir-Fuller of the U.N. Development Programme.

However, the so-called Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) rules under the Kyoto Protocol treaty on climate change need to be changed to ensure the triple benefits from climate mitigation, climate adaptation and sustainable development for the poor are achieved, said Niamir-Fuller in a statement.

A number of other fundamental policy changes are also needed if conservation of soil and vegetation and restoration of degraded land to ensure humanity's future survival, experts say.

Ending the estimated 30 billion dollars in food subsidies in the north that contribute directly to land degradation in Africa and elsewhere, and which force poor farmers to intensify their production in order to compete, would be a good start, Adeel said.

For Andrews, a sweeping change in how land use decisions are made at all levels of government is needed. Soil, water, energy, climate, biodiversity, food production are all interconnected, which demands integrated policy-making. Decisions and policies are currently set by different governmental departments and agencies with little regard for the impacts on other sectors, he said.

Energy ministries will happily spend billions on biofuels without worrying about where the water will come from, or how they will impact soils, biodiversity and food prices, he warned.

There is also no formal agreement on protecting the world's soils. Delegates at the weekend forum in Iceland will consider propositions for an International Year of Land Care to focus attention on soil stewardship, which affects food and water security worldwide.

"We have battled very severe land degradation in Iceland that has taken us 100 years to tackle," Arnalds said.

That degradation means one-third of Iceland's 103,000 sq km area is still desert.

Iceland has should serve as both a warning to other countries and hope that it is possible to restore degraded lands with enough resources, he says.

"It is far better to preserve than restore," the scientist noted.

(c) 2007 Inter Press Service

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