A new report from the United Nations says land degradation is already affecting half of the Earth's population, because there's a whole lot of land involved. According to the UN's second edition of its "Global Land Outlook" analysis, between 20% and 40% of the planet's "croplands, drylands, wetlands, forests, and grasslands" have been degraded, meaning the soil has lost its fertility, or the land has otherwise been stripped of natural resources, water, native vegetation and trees, or biodiversity, per the Guardian. The bulk of this land degradation has resulted from food production, and if we don't take steps now to reverse the trend, we'll see 1.6 billion hectares—an area practically the size of South America—tacked on to the land already affected.
Trying to grow food on degraded land becomes an increasingly difficult task, and the problem also has the ripple effect of killing off animal and plant species and making the climate crisis worse by spewing more carbon into the air. So what recourse do we have to turn things around? Some options for restoring degraded land include planting trees and cover crops to keep soil erosion at bay, harvesting rainwater, and practicing terrace farming. The Guardian notes, however, that farmers often aren't able to take such remedial steps because they simply don't know how to do so (or are under too much pressure to produce), or for other reasons such as shoddy government oversight.
If we are able to undertake such restoration efforts, three main problems will be addressed, notes Science: food insecurity, biodiversity loss, and the effects of climate change. And if we don't? If land degradation continues along current trend lines, expect to see a rise in "severe climate-induced disturbances," including "disruptions to food supplies, forced migration, and continued biodiversity loss and extinction," according to the report, which adds: "Collectively, these trends increase the risk of declining human health, more zoonotic diseases, and greater conflict over land resources." (Read more United Nations stories.)