Over three quarters of the Earth’s land area has been severely degraded, and this figure could increase to 90 per cent by the middle of the century, according to a new report.
Human expansion across the planet’s surface diminishes the quality of the land as pollution, soil erosion and drought make it less hospitable to life.
If current trends continue hundreds of millions of people could be displaced as local food systems collapse and force them to migrate.
Farming is the major contributor to this process, along with the growth of cities and the removal of forests.
Though the phenomenon is difficult to assess, a new report produced by the Joint Research Centre at the European Commission estimates an area half the size of the EU is degraded in this way every year.
It follows another report by the UN-backed Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released in March which concluded worldwide land degradation had reached a “critical” point at which the wellbeing of nearly half the world’s population was undermined.
Agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to this process, with crops and grazing land now covering a third of the planet’s surface, but it is also the sector which has most to lose.
Together with climate change, declining land quality is likely to reduce global crop yields by a tenth by 2050.
This effect will be felt the most in India, China and sub-Saharan Africa, where land degradation could halve crop production.
While the phenomenon is taking place on a global scale, the results show the importance of local action to turn the tide of land degradation.
Cutting back on less sustainable meat such as beef and switching to plant-based diets are both measures which can halt the spread of farmland into untouched areas.
These assessments of global land degradation were presented in a new edition of the commission’s World Atlas of Desertification.
The atlas is meant to serve as a tool worldwide policy makers can use to monitor land degradation and find remedies to stop deserts spreading across the Earth and restore degraded land.
The last time such a report was produced was in 1998, and the authors warned the rapid growth of human populations since then is putting unprecedented pressure on the planet.
Tibor Navracsics, European commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, responsible for the Joint Research Centre, said in the 20 years which have elapsed, global pressures on land and soil have “increased dramatically”.
“To preserve our planet for future generations, we urgently need to change the way we treat these precious resources,” he said.
Under the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Agenda, world leaders have committed to “combat desertification, restore degraded land and soil, including land affected by desertification, drought and floods, and strive to achieve a land degradation-neutral world”.
Despite this commitment, national governments have not been making a concerted effort to meet this goal by 2030, as was initially planned.
This is despite the clear economic benefits of achieving a land degradation-neutral world. In the EU alone, the decline in soil quality is thought to cost tens of billions of euros every year.
Nearly 10 per cent of the EU is threatened by rapidly encroaching deserts, including nations as diverse as Portugal and Bulgaria.
“The atlas shows an EU increasingly affected by desertification, underlining the importance of action on soil protection and sustainable land and water use in policy areas such as agriculture, forestry energy and climate change,” said Karmenu Vella, commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.