Three generations of Andrea Mulinda's family have worked and lived off their land that they plant crops and fruit-bearing trees on. Andrea aims to protect his land and pass it on to future generations. Photo by: Friends of the Earth International / CC BY-NC-ND

We live in a world that increasingly resembles an “all you can eat” buffet. We are encouraged to be as “greedy” as we like. This “all you can eat” concept is both amazing and disturbing; it sums up much of what is wrong about our relationship with food.  

It’s amazing in that it illustrates our scramble for “more,” especially when it comes to the vast change in food consumption and global agricultural production patterns.

Globally, our daily per-capita calorie intake has risen by about 450 kilocalories in the last 40 years, according to the World Health Organization. Data from the Food and Agriculture Organization shows that global agricultural production has doubled four times between 1820 and 1975, thanks to high-yielding crops, fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation and machinery.

But “all you can eat” is disturbing because gains such as these are not equally distributed. While some prospered, many were left behind. One-third of the world’s population pays relatively little and can consume more than they need. For the rest of humanity — especially the 900 million people around the world who suffer from chronic hunger — “all you can eat” is unattainable.

The global conversation on food security today mostly focuses on waste; waste by the “all you can eat” consumers or from losses at the farm level by producers lacking adequate processing and storage facilities, among whom are the food-insecure.

This discourse is necessary and timely. But it is insufficient because it neglects fundamental disconnects about the food we eat, down to the simplest levels. For instance, food does not come from restaurants and supermarkets; it comes from the land. But the debate rarely stretches that far.

With an anticipated world population of 9 billion by 2050, agricultural products alone need to double again from current levels. The idea that we must intensify and promote existing land use approaches to meet this demand is largely taken for granted.

In fact, past food production practices severely compromised the land — both freshwater and soil. Up to 52 percent of the land under agriculture is now either moderately or severely degraded, and 70 percent of all freshwater is used in the food production system. Every year, 12 million hectares of productive land in the dry areas are lost to desertification and drought. And every year, soil erosion robs us three tons of fertile soil per person.

Global warming is another threat. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns us to expect a 2 percent drop in agricultural output per decade. In places like Mali, where soils are fragile and water scarce, this could mean losses of up to 30 percent of the agricultural gross domestic product. Clearly, the current food production practices will not suffice.

A new discourse

Land degradation is reducing the cropland that is available for food production at a dramatic rate, and not just in developing countries. In many regions of Europe, for instance, soil is irreversibly eroded or has lost all its supportive functions, including the natural buffer zones that typically absorb some of the shocks caused by natural disasters like floods or droughts. But we are rather shortsighted in our perceptions of land degradation.

Europe’s huge appetite for products that require large areas of land for production — meat, dairy, timber and other forestry products — has a land footprint of around 640 million hectares a year. That is an area 1.5 times the size of Europe itself.

With nearly 60 percent of the land used to meet its demand for agricultural and forestry products coming from outside the continent, Europe is influencing land degradation in other parts of the world. There is no end in sight given the European Commission’s claim that every ten years, an area equal to the size of Cyprus is lost to housing, industry or infrastructure; half of it is actually “sealed.”

Tough choices

Our relationship with land is unsustainable and a global threat to lives and livelihoods. We are getting close to a tipping point, and a more holistic vision of land stewardship is necessary. We have to make some tough choices to feed everyone.

One option is to convert forests and natural habitats into new food-producing areas in order to avoid putting farmers in direct competition with urban dwellers for prime land that has good access to markets. The costs of such conversion, to meet the more than 4 million hectares of land required every year, include biodiversity loss and accelerated climate change. The alternative is to grow more with less: less land, water, energy and chemical inputs.

I know what my choice would be, but at the moment, we are making this policy choice blindly. Much like the “all you can eat” buffet, our global greed for land has no consideration of long-term effects. Land degradation, in particular, can have far-reaching implications that we don’t often reflect upon, and yet it’s not part of the most critical debates nowadays on food security and climate change.

An optimistic and ambitious policy path

Land use will almost always be a tradeoff between various social, economic and environmental needs. Therefore, food security can only be guaranteed if there are systems at national and global levels to manage land in a way that optimizes the delivery of nature’s service and the competing demands.

Such a policy approach needs to support growing more with less. It needs to set appropriate targets, rights and incentives. And it needs to promote initiatives that meet multiple objectives, especially conserving biological diversity and fighting land degradation and climate change.

To grow more with less, we need to immediately sustain the productivity of existing land and minimize any further degradation, which would move us toward land-degradation neutrality. In Africa, yield increases of up to 128 percent are common. In Niger, sustainable land management practices have led to an estimated additional production of about 500,000 tons of cereals per year — enough to feed 2.5 million people.

Estimates suggest there are more than 500 million hectares of abandoned agricultural land worldwide. A third of that is enough to meet the additional demand for land we need by 2050. Rehabilitating abandoned agricultural land back to productivity can boost food security and, at the same time, create jobs, conserve biodiversity and aid climate change adaptation.

To increase the area under sustainable land management, we need to phase out perverse incentives, set targets for land rehabilitation and strengthen land rights and weak or unprotected natural resources. For instance, granting women equal access to the agricultural resources men have could raise farm production by 20-30 percent, and total agricultural production by up to 4 percent in some countries.

Many sustainable land management approaches are based on a combination of modern research and traditional knowledge and experiences. Not only are they practical and inexpensive to implement, they can also increase the resilience of our food production and biodiversity to climate change.

The nearly 1 billion people facing chronic hunger, the more than 1 billion living off degrading land and the 500 million small-scale farm holders supporting the livelihoods of more than 2 billion people will benefit the most. This would steer us closer to a food-secure world.

A global discourse on food security that avoids, neglects or ignores the long-term effects of our current land use practices cannot stem the greed for land or rid us of food insecurity. But we can be optimistic and ambitious, even with a changing climate, about the scale of opportunities the recovery of degraded land offers to improve food security without severely compromising or sacrificing equally vital land use needs.

Want to learn more? Check out Feeding Development's campaign site and tweet us using #FeedingDev.

Feeding Development is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with ACDI/VOCA, Chemonics, Fintrac, GAIN, Nestlé and Tetra Tech to reimagine solutions for a food-secure future from seed and soil to a healthy meal.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Monique Barbut

    Monique Barbut is under secretary-general of the United Nations and executive secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. She has over 30 years of experience in sustainable development, international diplomacy, governance and finance.