Land decay is undermining the well-being of two-fifths of all the people on Earth, or around 3.2 billion people, according to an Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) three-year assessment, penned by over 100 experts hailing from 45 countries. It’s the first comprehensive land health assessment, according to Agence France Presse (AFP) — and assessment co-chair Robert Scholes of South Africa said land degradation is “pushing the planet towards a sixth mass extinction.”

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Human activity is driving dangerous land degradation — specifically quick expansion and unsustainable management of crop and grazing lands, according to IPBES. They said land decay has hit critical levels, impacting food security, water purification, and energy. The impacts of land degradation can be glimpsed in loss of biodiversity, declining animal populations, deforestation, and loss of soil health, to name a few. The assessment also says land degradation contributes to climate change.

Related: Substantial swaths of globe face desertification without climate action — new study

Grazing and crop lands sprawl across one third of the planet’s land surface, with under 25 percent of that surface escaping significant impacts of human activity, according to IPBES, although scientists estimate that figure will plunge to under 10 percent by 2050. As the population grows, there will be an even higher demand for food and biofuels, and researchers think pesticide and fertilizer use could double by 2050.

Scholes said around four billion people will reside in drylands in a little over 30 years, and by then land degradation and climate change could force “50 to 700 million people to migrate.” Social instability could be a consequence of decreasing land productivity; “particularly in dryland areas, where years with extremely low rainfall have been associated with an increase of up to 45 percent in violent conflict.”

The researchers pointed to an array of options for land restoration; for example, planting native species, developing green infrastructure like parks, or river channel restoration in urban locations.

IPBES’s statement said humanity can attempt to avoid agricultural expansion into native habitats by increasing yields on farmlands that already exist and by shifting toward eating habits that don’t degrade land to the same extent, such as plant-based diets.

IPBES chair Sir Robert Watson said, “Of the many valuable messages in the report, this ranks among the most important: implementing the right actions to combat land degradation can transform the lives of millions of people across the planet, but this will become more difficult and more costly the longer we take to act.”

+ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services

Via Agence France Presse

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