To meet the needs of a rapidly rising human population, the planet needs to produce more food over the coming decades than it did in the last 10,000 years combined, warn experts organizing a major world forum on the critical need to restore and protect Earth's precious soil resources.
While demand for soil's services are growing, however, the problems of land degradation and desertification are intensifying in many parts of the world -- a creeping environmental crisis affecting one-third of all people on Earth today and worsened by the effects of warming global temperatures.
Indeed, land degradation and desertification is itself a contributor to climate change, responsible for about 30% of the world's greenhouse gas releases, as well as alterations in the water, temperature and energy balance of the planet.
Iceland, Europe's northernmost nation, has suffered acute land degradation problems and has become a world leader in soil restoration research and techniques. With a host of international partner institutions, Iceland is marking the centenary of its Soil Conservation Service by convening about 150 world scientists, policy-makers, land users and business leaders in Selfoss, Iceland, Aug. 31 to Sept. 4.
The International Forum will highlight the fundamental roles land care and soil conservation play in climate change, biological diversity, food and water security, economic and social progress and in the successful implementation of global Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs).
Delegates will consider propositions for an International Year of Land Care to focus attention on soil stewardship, which affects food and water security worldwide.
Other highlighted topics will include policy and legal challenges, knowledge management, and indicators for measuring sustainable land management.
"Iceland has for well over a century fought the largest desert in Europe and understands well the urgent need to conserve soil and vegetation and to restore land. This will be of fundamental importance for the future of human livelihood," says Iceland President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, patron of the Forum.
"It is well known that soil and vegetation is being lost at an alarming rate around the globe, which in turn has devastating effects on food production and accelerates climate change. I hope the discussion between world class scientists, experts and policy makers in Iceland, and the pioneering efforts we have undertaken in the course of a century of soil conservation, can serve as a motivation for constructive and immediate action around the globe."
Says Andres Arnalds, assistant director of the Icelandic Soil Conservation Service and chairman of the Forum organizing committee: "Information on the health of international soil resources is not exact but we know soil and vegetation is being lost at an alarming rate in many areas. Some estimates claim that an area almost the size of Iceland loses its vegetation every year.
"Land degradation and desertification may be regarded as the silent crisis of the world, a genuine threat to the future of humankind."
Dr. Arnalds notes that between 1980 and 2000, world population rose from 4.4 to 6.1 billion and food production increased 50%. With world population predicted to increase by another 3 billion by 2050 years, it means simply that more food has to be produced within the next several decades than during the last 10,000 years combined.
Meanwhile, many countries are now starting to meet energy needs by growing biofuel crops -- a trend many experts expect to accelerate, Dr. Arnalds notes. This new competition for soil and water resources adds even more stress and pressure on the most fundamental of natural resources -- soil and water.
"The inevitable losers in such conflicts of competing interests are the environment and poor people," he says. "Unless destructive forces can be halted and land quality restored where possible, securing food in many places will become a crisis of growing proportions."
The same applies to many of the various services provided by the interlinked ecosystems of the world, such as water storage and biological diversity.
Soil and vegetation act as a sponge that holds and gradually releases water, says Forum partner Zafar Adeel, Director of the United Nations University's Canadian-based International Network on Water, Environment and Health.
Forests and woodlands are being reduced at an alarming rate in many parts of the world, and large areas are being overgrazed, says Dr. Adeel. The weakening of vegetative cover reduces the resilience of the ecosystems to further stress and degradation.
"Policy changes that result in improved conservation of soil and vegetation and restoration of degraded land are fundamental to humanity's future livelihood. This is an urgent task, as the quality of the land for food production, as well as water storage, is fundamental to future peace. Securing food and reducing poverty, especially in the drylands, can have a strong impact on efforts to curb the flow of people - popularly termed 'environmental refugees' - inside countries as well as across national borders," says Dr. Adeel.
The UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment ranked land degradation among the world's greatest environmental challenges, reducing environmental security, destabilizing societies, endangering food security and increasing poverty.
According to Rattan Lal of Ohio State University, another Forum partner, land degradation is directly linked to global climate change in many ways, including reducing the carbon sink sequestration capacity of land, particularly as a result of soil erosion and loss of vegetation, and by creating adverse local weather patterns due to impacts on albedo from loss of vegetation cover.
In turn, climate change exacerbates land degradation, primarily through changes in precipitation and evaporation-transpiration patterns, coupled with more extreme weather. Increases in floods, cyclones, droughts and fires are a consequence of a changing climate and deteriorating vegetation, and accelerating land degradation processes.
The inter-linkages between global environmental problems are profound, adds Dr. Lal. For example, loss of soil and vegetation, or changes in soil nutrients and moisture, can lead to a loss in biodiversity. This in turn can reduce production and accelerate land degradation, and constrain our capacity for responding to change.
Says Forum partner Maryam Niamir-Fuller of the UN Development Programme: "There is significant potential to harness carbon finance for restoration of land in such a way as to ensure triple benefits from climate mitigation, climate adaptation and sustainable development.
"Biological sinks have the potential to capture 10-20% of anticipated net fossil fuel emissions between now and 2050. However, Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) rules and transaction costs for sequestration projects have skewed the market towards projects that are large-scale and favor private developers. Such projects usually do not produce high sustainable development outcomes for the poorest of the poor, and the simultaneous 'triple benefits' are often not evident. The Iceland conference will contribute to a growing international debate on developing a post-2012 Kyoto regime."
"The key principle of land care is that the people at a grassroots level, whose everyday decisions and actions affect the condition of land and water resources, have to be involved in designing and implementing soil conservation measures," says Andrew Campbell, Australia's first National Landcare Facilitator and one of the architects of the landcare program that now involves almost half of all Australian farmers and many other people in rural, urban and coastal communities.
"Addressing these problems at a larger scale requires work at the community, village or neighbourhood level. We need to bring a whole community along the journey to more sustainable ways of living on Earth."
International Forum: Soils, Society and Climate Change
The International Forum Aug. 31 to Sept. 4 will focus on innovative ways to collectively tackle the interrelated facets of land care-related problems, in particular by the application of sustainable land management approaches. It will emphasize the synergistic role of sustainable soil management and of ecosystem restoration in achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals.
The Forum will explore where improvements can be made in linkages between the UN Conventions on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Combating Desertification (UNCCD) and Biological Diversity (UNCBD), to increase the effectiveness of their implementation.
The Forum marks the celebration by Iceland of a century of organized soil conservation and land restoration. Initiated by law in 1907, it is one of the oldest such undertakings in the world. With its extensive problems of land degradation and desertification, and its numerous success stories in halting advancing sand and other forms of severe soil erosion and in restoring degraded land, Iceland provides an excellent venue to discuss and evaluate the role of soils in sustaining society and environment.
The Government of Iceland and the Icelandic community have a history of working together to develop successful ecosystem restoration schemes for vast areas of severely degraded land, and to protect existing ecosystems and unique landscapes. This is reflected in the translation of the Icelandic name of the Soil Conservation Service as the "Healing-the-Land Institute".