Desertification: scale, rate and the role of humanity

    08 Aug 2021

    Every year on June 17, the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought is celebrated. Activists of the Plant-Based campaign decided to find out what kind of day it is and what to do with it. Read what happened in the article.

    How do we affect the planet?

    Everything originates from the soil – a relatively thin layer of earth, which is the basis of prosperity of the entire biosphere. This fertile layer, rich in microorganisms and nutrients, has been formed for centuries but is so vulnerable that only a few years are enough to degrade it. This process is called desertification, and it has already affected or threatens to affect about 40% of the earth’s landmass.

    Human activity plays a vital role in this phenomenon. With the development of civilization, nature has undergone significant changes: in addition to desertification, began the mass extinction of species – the sixth extinction in the history of the Earth. These phenomena are interrelated because species that live in a particular habitat, during desertification, lose their habitat. At the same time, when the number of organisms of a ce rtain species decreases or they become extinct, desertification accelerates. The earth is a complex system that contains many other systems, and when one element goes out of balance, the balance of the entire planet is disturbed.

    Our impact on the Earth is growing. We are changing the composition of the atmosphere and high reliefs, displacing other species. The last geological epoch, in which the influence of human activity is the most significant, is informally called the Anthropocene. Not only has it brought us considerable progress in all areas, but it also poses complex challenges for us – can we maintain the complex balance of the biosphere to continue to live in harmony as part of nature? At present, we see that such a challenge is quite difficult to overcome.

    World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought

    On June 17, 1994, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification was adopted. At the same time, the UN General Assembly declared June 17 the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought. This day is celebrated annually to raise public awareness of international efforts to combat soil degradation. It is necessary to remind us that land degradation can be stopped and land fertility restored by solving problems, actively involving the community, and cooperating at all levels.

    The UN has dedicated the last decade from 2010 to 2020 to combating desertification. The website of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification states:

    “In 2021, the goal of Desertification and Drought Day is to demonstrate that investing in healthy land is a smart economic decision – not only in terms of job creation and livelihood recovery but also in terms of protecting the economy from future crises. caused by climate change and the loss of the environment, as well as accelerating progress in all 17 sustainable development goals while we recover from COVID-19 ”.

    Scale and rate of desertification

    The risk of desertification is widespread and covers more than 100 countries. It has the worst impact on the poorest and most vulnerable, as subsistence farming is widespread in many drought-prone regions.

    However, the problem of desertification concerns not only the hottest and driest regions – it is becoming increasingly important throughout the world. The desert comes unnoticed by most people, but quickly.

    Although land degradation has occurred throughout history, according to the UN, its rate is accelerating, increasing by 30-35 times compared to the past. According to the European Commission’s World Desertification Atlas, more than 75% of the Earth’s landmass has already been degraded, and more than 90% may be degraded by 2050. Scientists estimate that by 2050, about 700 million people will migrate due to problems related to limited land resources. By the end of the century, this figure could reach 10 billion.

    The main reasons, solutions, and shortcomings

    Most of the described destructive phenomena originate from the activities of humanity. Among the most critical factors:

    ·        deforestation;

    ·        intensive and illiterate land use (crop rotation violations, poor quality organic fertilizers, burning of last year’s dry grass, inappropriate irrigation of land);

    ·        global warming;

    ·        drainage of swamps;

    ·        urbanization;

    ·        overgrazing of cattle;

    ·        mining.

    All this contributes to soil erosion and the inability of the earth to retain water and be fertile.

    Currently, the ideas for solving the problem of desertification relate to each of the following negative factors, for example:

    ·        planting and protection of forests from deforestation;

    ·        search for more economical ways of land use;

    ·        transition to a plant-based diet;

    ·        reducing greenhouse gas emissions to halt global warming.

    These decisions are not easy to implement. Once a desert has formed, forest planting can stop it from expanding, but this is not the best approach to prevent desertification. Some researchers believe that focusing on afforestation projects may be dangerous because it diverts attention from the essence of the solution – reducing greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, which are the main cause of climate change. Of course, we need to stop deforestation and restore them, but emission reductions cannot be postponed, because there is simply no place to postpone further. Unless this significant change in the world economy is urgently implemented, all other measures will fail.

    One of the reasons for deforestation is poverty. Lack of financial security forces people to seek income in all possible ways and even risk their own homes, as deforested lands are vulnerable to landslides and floods that destroy entire villages. Thus, the problem becomes social and political.

    A similar situation has developed in the field of land use. The area of ​​fertile lands is steadily declining, and therefore you should obtain more products from them. Lands are being exploited more heavily, and this leads to the depletion of their productive potential.

    Some tillage systems, at first glance, are pretty good, but in fact, have various side effects. For example, the no-till system, when the soil is not loosened, and it retains moisture better. Using zero tillage systems, fields are not plowed, so the number of weeds, pests, and diseases increases, so it is necessary to increase the application of pesticides by almost 30-40%. The use of pesticides, in turn, is detrimental not only to pests but also to bees. This type of insect is one of the essential pillars on which all agriculture is based, as it is the primary pollinator of fruit crops.

    The use of pesticides has been one of the reasons for the intensification of bee colony destruction syndrome observed in recent decades.

    As we can see, the search for effective and sustainable solutions is still ongoing. Not only is land use necessaryelements to.”necessary elements its purpose. The production of meat products requires many times more grain and water, and hence land resources. The transition of the population to a plant-based diet is one of the best solutions, without harmful side effects.

    Some scientists argue that stopping livestock is the only effective way to reduce our impact on Earth. Recent studies show that without meat and milk consumption, total agricultural land use can be reduced by more than 75% – an area equivalent to the US, China, the European Union, and Australia combined – and still feed the world. Other positive effects are improving the health of the population, preserving biodiversity, and slowing global warming.

    A study published in the October 2018 issue of the journal Nature estimates that meat consumption should be reduced by 90% to avoid global warming, deforestation, and water scarcity.

    What can each of us do?

    We all have the power to make eco-friendly decisions every day, given global challenges. The influence of everyone is essential and must be understood because the future of the planet will concern each of us. What to do?

    Understand the urgency of the problem, take an active civil position, be a volunteer.

    By supporting environmental campaigns, we are all contributing to positive change. To prevent desertification, it is necessary to change the approach to land use to make it more sustainable. New laws are needed to control enterprises’ activities and make them responsible for erosion, salinization, and other forms of soil degradation.

    You can switch to a plant-based diet, in part or in full.

    The transition to flexitarianism, or the complete abandonment of animal products, is a sustainable and eco-friendly solution available to everyone. Livestock is responsible for 51% of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, the carbon footprint of those who choose plant foods is about twice as much as those who consume meat. The variety of plant alternatives to meat is growing and becoming more affordable and cheaper every year, with increasing demand.

    The earth functions as the only organism in which nothing can happen without consequences. The ever-increasing needs of humankind for energy and food are depleting natural resources and upsetting the fragile balance of the biosphere. Today, the destruction of nature is a critical threat to human civilization.

    It may seem that things are not so bad yet, and there is still time, but the desert is coming faster than we think. It is better to prevent problems in advance because restoring desert areas is expensive, time-consuming, and usually gives limited results. And in order to save our planet for future generations, we urgently need to change the way we manage and relate to natural resources.

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