Climate change and overuse degrade half of Earth’s pasture lands, endangering billions’ food supply

The UNCCD’s latest report reveals the alarming degradation of global rangelands, emphasizing the urgent need for sustainable management to secure food supplies and protect pastoral communities.

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A startling new report by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) has found that up to half of the world’s natural pasture lands have been degraded due to the combined effects of climate change and over-exploitation. This widespread degradation poses a severe threat to the global food supply, potentially affecting billions of people who depend on these lands for their livelihoods.

Range lands, which include natural grasslands, savannas, wetlands, tundra, shrub lands, and deserts, cover 54 percent of the Earth’s land surface. These ecosystems are crucial for grazing livestock and wild animals, providing essential resources for food production and biodiversity. The UNCCD, dedicated to addressing desertification and land degradation, has released the Global Land Outlook Thematic Report on Rangelands and Pastoralists, emphasizing the urgent need for better management and restoration of these vital areas.

The report reveals that as much as half of the Earth’s rangelands have suffered significant degradation. The primary causes include climate change, unsustainable land use practices, and policy-driven over-exploitation. The transformation of rangelands into cropland and urban areas, driven by population growth and increasing demands for food and fuel, has led to excessive grazing and abandonment of land by pastoralists.

This land degradation manifests in various detrimental ways, including the depletion of soil nutrients, loss of fertility, salinization, alkalinization, erosion, and soil compaction. These factors inhibit plant growth and contribute to severe environmental issues such as fluctuating precipitation, drought, and biodiversity loss, both on the surface and below ground.

The degradation of range lands directly threatens the food security of billions of people. According to the UNCCD report, a sixth of the planet’s food supply is at risk. Approximately two billion people worldwide, including small-scale farmers, herders, and ranchers, depend on healthy range lands for their survival.

In many regions, the stakes are even higher. In West Africa, for instance, 80 percent of the population relies on livestock production. Similarly, in Mongolia and Central Asia, grazing range lands constitute 60 percent of the land area, supporting nearly a third of the population.

Joao Campari, the global food practice leader for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), underscores the critical need to protect rangelands to achieve global biodiversity, climate, and food security goals. “We simply cannot afford to lose any more of our rangelands, grasslands, and savannahs,” he said. “Our planet suffers from their ongoing conversion, as do the pastoralists who depend on them for their livelihoods, and all those who rely on them for food, water, and other vital ecosystem services.”

Ibrahim Thiaw, the executive secretary of the UNCCD, highlights the lack of public awareness about rangeland degradation compared to deforestation. “When we cut down a forest, when we see a 100-year-old tree fall, it rightly evokes an emotional response in many of us. The conversion of ancient range lands, on the other hand, happens in ‘silence’ and generates little public reaction,” he explained. “Sadly, these expansive landscapes and the pastoralists and livestock breeders who depend on them are usually underappreciated.”

Mongolia’s environment minister, H.E. Bat-Erdene Bat-Ulzii, reflects on the country’s traditional practices that have long emphasized the cautious use of range lands. “Mongolian traditions are built on the appreciation of resource limits, which defined mobility as a strategy, established shared responsibilities over the land, and set limits in consumption,” he stated.

The UNCCD report includes numerous case studies detailing both successful and unsuccessful rangeland management practices. These case studies offer valuable lessons, highlighting the importance of sustainable practices and the detrimental impacts of poorly implemented policies and regulations.

To address the degradation of rangelands, the report advocates several key strategies. One of the primary recommendations is to protect pastoralism, a traditional way of life centered on the pasture-based production of livestock. Pastoralism is recognized as a sustainable option that should be integrated into range land use planning.

Additionally, the report emphasizes the need to integrate climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies with sustainable rangeland management plans. This approach aims to enhance the resilience of range lands and pastoralist communities while increasing carbon sequestration and storage.

The authors also recommend avoiding or reducing the conversion of rangelands and changes to land use that diminish the multi-functionality and diversity of these ecosystems. Particularly important is the protection of communal and Indigenous lands, which are often more vulnerable to such changes.

The degradation of the Earth’s range lands is an urgent issue that threatens global food security and the livelihoods of billions. The UNCCD report calls for immediate action from policymakers, researchers, and stakeholders to implement sustainable practices and protect these vital ecosystems. Maryam Niamir-Fuller, co-chair of the UN IYRP International Support Group, urges, “We must translate our shared aspirations into concrete actions—stopping indiscriminate conversion of rangelands into unsuitable land uses, advocating for policies that support.”

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