Growing demand for cropland threatens environment, UN agency reports

Hundreds of millions of hectares, nearly the size of Brazil, face degradation threat.
Hundreds of millions of hectares, nearly the size of Brazil, face degradation threat.

Growing demand for cropland threatens environment, UN agency reports

If demand for new land on which to grow food continues at the current rate, by 2050, high-end estimates are that area nearly the size of Brazil could be ruined, with vital forests, savannahs and grassland lost, the United Nations today warned in a new report.

Up to 849 million hectares of natural land may be degraded, according to report, “Assessing Global Land Use: Balancing Consumption with Sustainable Supply”, produced by the International Resource Panel, a consortium of 27 internationally renowned resource scientists, 33 national Governments and other groups, hosted by the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP).

“Recognizing that land is a finite resource, we need to become more efficient in the ways we produce, supply and consume our land-based products,” said Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.

The need to feed a growing number of people has resulted in widespread environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity, affecting an estimated 23 per cent of global soil.

Authors attribute the increasing demand for land to more protein-rich diets in developing countries and a growing demand for biofuels and biomaterials, especially in developed countries.

They attempt to answer the question: how much more land can be used to serve the growing demand for food and non-food biomass while keeping the consequences of land use change at a tolerable level?

The report outlines the need and options to balance consumption with sustainable production, focusing on land-based products – such as food, fuels and fibre – and describes methods to enable countries to determine whether their consumption levels exceed sustainable supply capacities.

Its release comes amidst the final 700 days towards reaching the deadline for the eight anti-poverty targets known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and as the international community defines the sustainable development goals post-2015.

“Recommendations from the report are meant to inform policy and contribute to ongoing discussions on targets and indicators for sustainable resources,” Mr. Steiner said.

The report authors argue that the key causes of global challenges are linked to unsustainable and disproportionate consumption levels.

Meanwhile, in high-consuming countries, only a few policy instruments address excessive consumption habits and the structures that encourage them, according to the report.

Among its recommendations, the report pushes for measures that improve land management and land use planning, investment in restoration of degraded land, and a reduction in food waste and shift towards more vegetable diets.

Earlier this month, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) said the current food production system is not sustainable today, or in 2050, when it will have to provide food for a population of 9.6 billion people.

In addition to degraded soils, pollution and reduced biodiversity, intensive farming systems – combined with food wastage on a massive scale – have also contributed to greenhouse gas emissions.

The UN agency urged consumers to make healthier food choices, and called on political leadership to focus in agricultural research and development on nutrition, as well as local biodiversity and diversified farming systems.