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Land and water ecosystems, ‘stressed to a critical point’ 

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A child carries water collected from an artificial pond in central Madagascar.

Land and water resources are “stressed to a critical point”, following significant deterioration over the past decade, according to a major new report released on Thursday by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). 

Entitled, State of the World’s Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture – Systems at breaking point (SOLAW 2021), the report highlights the challenges that lie ahead in feeding a global population that should near ten billion by 2050. 

At the launch of the publication, FAO Director-General, QU Dongyu, said that “current patterns of agrifood production are not proving sustainable.” 

Yet, he added, these systems “can play a major role in alleviating these pressures and contributing positively to climate and development goals.” 

Main findings 

If the world keeps to the current trajectory, producing the additional 50 per cent more food needed, could mean an increase of 35 per cent, in the water withdrawals needed for farming. 

That could create environmental disasters, increase competition for resources, and fuel new social challenges and conflicts. 

Currently, human-induced soil degradation affects 34 per cent (around 1,660 million hectares), of agricultural land. 

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Even though more than 95 per cent of all food is produced on land, there is little room for expanding the area that can be made more productive. 

In fact, urban areas occupy less than 0.5 per cent of the Earth’s land surface, but the rapid growth of cities has significantly reduced resources, polluting and encroaching on prime agricultural land. 

In only 17 years, between 2000 and 2017, land use per capita declined by 20 per cent.  

Water scarcity now threatens 3.2 billion people living in agricultural areas.  

Solutions on hand 

FAO believes that a rapid scaling-up of technology and innovation is vital to address these challenges. 

The world needs to strengthen the digital systems that provide basic data, information and science-based solutions for agriculture.  

Land and water governance must be more inclusive and adaptive, to benefit millions of smallholder farmers, women, youth and indigenous peoples, who are the most vulnerable, and face the greatest food insecurity.  

There also needs to be more integrated planning at all levels, the report says, and investments in agriculture must be redirected towards social and environmental gains. 

Finally, FAO argues that sustainable use of these resources is key to achieving climate mitigation and adaptation targets.  

Wise use of soils, for example, can potentially sequester one-third of greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural land. 

Land and water ecosystems, ‘stressed to a critical point’ 

Solar powered water pump in Nepal

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