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Fixing what the land is losing between the farm and your fork


Barron Joseph OrrDr. Barron Joseph Orr is the Lead Scientist for the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). He is Professor Emeritus at the University of Arizona (USA), where he also served as a NASA Geospatial Extension Specialist, and Profesor avalista at the University of Alicante (Spain). He is co-lead author of the Scientific Conceptual Framework on Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) that was adopted by the UNCCD’s country Parties, at COP13 in Ordos, China.

If you track science in the news regularly, you may have noticed the release of the IPBES Assessment Report on Land Degradation and Restoration, a landmark global scientific assessment of land degradation and restoration and its summary for policy makers[1]. Most of the press[2] reported the almost unfathomable extent of the problem. About 75% of all land is impacted by degradation. This is compromising the well-being of nearly half of the people on Earth and costing 10% of the annual global gross product in lost ecosystem services. The impending doom is not to be taken lightly. But the press reports obscure a wealth of information in the Assessment, which can lead to solutions.

Let me share just two examples. The Assessment identifies the elephant in the room: what we consume at home influences land all over the world. The report also showcases the power of all forms of knowledge.

For decades, our policy interventions to address land degradation have focused on where the problem occurs through pressures such as unsustainable farming and grazing practices. But behind this unsustainable land management are two things. First, the indirect drivers that are linked to changing consumption patterns. Second, is our declining understanding – as individuals and as a society – of what goes on between the farm and the fork.

But here is the good news: the tools for encouraging more sustainable consumption and production exist, and some examples are given.

For example, with a metric known as the Ecological Footprint, we can measure how much natural capital we have (as a planet, a country, a watershed) and how much we use in order to uncover the global flows of consumption and production. The more we can trace these flows the easier it gets to manage them sustainably.

Apps such as make it possible for actors at every stage of the supply chain to make smarter decisions through greater transparency. By linking what we consume to the conditions of land in the places where commodities are produced, we can help companies, governments and ultimately all consumers to understand the risks and identify opportunities for more sustainable production.

The LandPKS app offers all land users the opportunity to contribute information about their soils and vegetation in order to create a comprehensive picture of the potential of land, which can guide decisions on sustainable land management.

Global and national policies also have innovations designed to address land degradation.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) represent a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. And yet, 16 of the 17 goals also embody competing demands for one the remaining goal, Life on Land (Goal 15). However, one of this Goals’ targets (15.3) provides a new framework for doing no further harm.

Known as Land Degradation Neutrality, this no-net loss approach shifts the discussion from one of fixing land degradation after it occurs, to a discussion on modeling tradeoffs in order to optimize our land use planning and management decisions, and thus systematically keep in balance our demands on nature and what it can provide.

The Assessment’s treatment of knowledge is also significant – and good news.

Often, we assume scientists are the keepers of environmental knowledge. The report significantly expands the toolkit of options we have. It documents the wealth of successful indigenous and local approaches to manage land sustainably passed down through the generations. For instance, the Dong People’s Rice-Fish-Duck Symbiotic System in Guizhou Province, China, demonstrates how economic, ecological, social and cultural benefits enjoyed in this region for several thousand years can be derived harmoniously if the system in place emphasizes and institutionalizes the interdependencies.

This shifts the challenge from one of finding a solution to one figuring out what has worked for centuries in that location, and how it could work in other locations with similar circumstances in order to scale it up and out.

The Assessment sounds an alarm that needs to be heard around the world. But it also offers pathways towards both understanding and responding to our changing environment. Most importantly, it provides solutions.

The UNCCD’s Science-Policy Interface (SPI) will review this major assessment and analyze the key messages relevant for future UNCCD policy decisions. We know the scope of the challenge and have some solutions. Now it is up to us to act on the knowledge in this comprehensive and rich compilation.


The Dong People’s Rice-Fish-Duck Symbiotic System in Guizhou Province, ChinaThe Dong People’s Rice-Fish-Duck Symbiotic System in Guizhou Province, China

The Dong People’s Rice-Fish-Duck Symbiotic System in Guizhou Province, China - before and after 10 years


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[1] ] The Thematic Assessment on Land Degradation and Restoration was produced over the past three years by 100+ experts from around the world under the coordination of Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The almost 900 page report draws upon over 3,000 scientific, government, indigenous and local knowledge sources. It underwent extensive scientific peer-review. After taking into account more than 7,300 comments, the report and its Summary for Policy Makers was approved on 24 March 2018 by the 129 state members of IPBES at their 6th Plenary in Medellín, Colombia.


[2] For example:
Nature: Top UN panel paints bleak picture of world’s ecosystems

National Geographic: 75% of Earth's Land Areas Are Degraded