Four actions to improve the state of our land, soil and water

Protecting our land, soil and water resources for the future of our food

FAO’s new report on the state of the world’s land and water resources pushes for innovative solutions and better collaboration to prevail for the long-term future of land, soil and water. ©FAO/Believe Nyakudjara


Soil, land, water. These are the basics, the building blocks of our agrifood systems, and supply over 95 percent of food consumed. Though there is much more to it than that, a new FAO report is reminding us of these foundations. And the foundations, it seems, are cracking.

FAO’s new State of the World’s Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture 2021 (SOLAW) warns us that the foundations of our agrifood systems — soil, land and water — are already at their “breaking point.”

The amount of cultivated land increased by 15 percent between 1961 and 2017. And while human use of land and water for agriculture has not yet peaked, all evidence points to slowing growth in productivity, the rapid exhaustion of productive capacity and more damage to the environment. Already, approximately a third of the world’s soil resources are classified as moderately to highly degraded.

The SOLAW 2021 synthesis report argues that innovative solutions and collaboration need to prevail for the long-term future of land, soil and water.

Here are its 4 main recommendations:

1)     Degradation knows no boundaries. Governance should follow suit.

National policies and laws that govern land and water resources are often disjointed or lack implementation. These have often proven ineffective due to institutional and technical silos. What’s more, there is often a mismatch in jurisdiction, since the boundaries of interconnected water system often do not correlate with political or administrative boundaries.

Land and water policies also need to be more inclusive and flexible, taking into account marginalized groups and smallholder farmers to ensure they have access to resources they need. FAO’s Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture (KJWA) global initiative under the Climate Agreement aims to strengthen land and water governance and make it more inclusive by integrating climate adaptation and mitigation policies across agricultural sectors. Examples of specific issues addressed under KJWA include solutions to improve the levels of carbon in soil and wetlands and the health and fertility of grasslands and croplands.

2)     Integrated solutions through data and planning

Pressures on land and water systems risk compromising agricultural productivity where growth is needed the most, meaning planning around such resources is crucial.

New tools are helping planners understand the extent and location of yield and production gaps. A web-based, freely available land resources planning toolbox developed by FAO is helping break down barriers between regions and sectors. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, yields are only 24 percent of what is achievable with higher levels of input, such as better irrigation and organic fertilizers, in addition to sound resource management. Similar issues are found in Central America, India and Russia.

FAO is helping break down barriers between regions and sectors to support better land and water management by providing web-based, freely available land resources planning toolbox. Left/top: ©FAO/Truls Brekke Right/bottom: ©FAO/Sheam Kaheel

3)     Innovation, innovation, innovation

The rapid spread of mobile technologies, remote-sensing services, cloud-based computing and open access to data and information on crops, movement of pests, natural resources, climatic conditions, inputs and markets are already helping smallholder farmers enter the digital world. Such technical and managerial innovations should be prioritized in order to accelerate the transformation of agrifood systems.

For example, innovative, nature-friendly infrastructure projects can help minimize flood risks and offers additional benefits in restoring environmental flows, fisheries, biodiversity and water quality improvements and recreational opportunities.

4)     Invest in the whole picture

The high costs of degradation and inaction only show the urgency to increase investments in sustainable land, soil and water management and in restoring degraded ecosystems. Better land and water management will lead to financial gains that can be used for social, health and environmental objectives.

Conventional funding has focused on maximizing agricultural efficiency and finding competitive advantages, thus prioritizing exports of high-value crops rather than food self-sufficiency and nutrition. Responsible investments should therefore not narrow in solely on infrastructure solutions to increase production. Instead, international funding and public and private investments should seek to explore new approaches for investment in healthy and environmentally sustainable land, soil and water resources. Farmers must also be recognized as prime investors and not just beneficiaries of public subsidy and tariff protection.

Taking good care of our agrifood systems’ foundations — soil, land and water —can help build resilience to natural disasters and pandemics while providing nutritious, diverse diets and supporting the shift to sustainable consumption. ©FAO/Giulio Napolitano

Agrifood systems need to adapt to a world facing climate change and an ever-growing demand for safe, quality food. Taking good care of their foundations — soil, land and water —can also help build resilience to natural disasters and pandemics while providing nutritious, diverse diets and supporting the shift to sustainable consumption. But time is short. As the report says, “injecting a sense of urgency into making the necessary transformations in the core of the global food system is essential.”

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6. Clean water and sanitation, 13. Climate action, 15. Life on land