Monday, 25 June 2012

Environmental Economics: Land Degradation (Part 4)

Imagine traditional societal food supply chains became disrupted through an energy or water crisis, and individuals have decided to grow their own food. However, one looks at their patch of land and realizes something – nothing is going to grow in this area. Depressing thought; people could not have the last resort option of growing their own food. This is a consequence of land degradation, and unfortunately the issue hasn’t been featured too much in the main stream media.

Land degradation is a fairly large international problem, spawning from countries around the world attempting to fast track their developmental pace into a modern society without properly analyzing environmental affects. Defined as the reduction of biological/economic productivity of land is reduced due to manmade processes, the US Department of Agriculture estimates 40% of the earth’s surface is at risk of desertification or already a desert. Basically land degradation is a disturbance to the land that can cause land becoming undesirable who could include soil erosion, deterioration of chemical or biological properties of soil or long term loss of natural vegetation*.

To be honest, not a lot is actually known about land degradation as no developing country has created a department or process to monitor national land degradation. Most of the data used is obtained from experts, field experiments and case studies or land use trends which are used to extrapolate conclusions. The GLASOD study is most likely the most influential study, as 250 experts contribute their assessments. Continuing from the 1940s, GLASOD suggests 560 million hectares of farmland has been degraded (38% of total farmland, while permanent loss due to human activity is estimated to be .3-.5% of the world’s total farmland per year (around 5 million hectares per year).  Due to increased population and hence increased demand for food, the FAO has hypothesized that most arable land expansion will occur in developing countries resulting in tropical forest destruction. Again, in the short term it will appear the cheapest financial option, in the long term the effects could result in large problems.

The Canadian International Development Agency attempts to combat land degradation with sustainable land management. This is done through proper training, education and investments in technical assistance and equipment. Interestingly, CIDA reports that soil conservation practices and responsible environmental practices have reversed effects of low soil productivity of 70% of cropped land in the last 25 years.  The responsible environmental practices referred to consist of maximization of vegetation to prevent soil erosion, replacement of nutrients and preventing the accumulation of harmful substances within the soil.

Governments have used several policies over the years that could hasten land degradation. Subsidization of economic ventures that increase land deterioration while taxing activities that prevent can be seen in many countries around the world.  Sugar Cane import quotas in the United States caused farmland expansion in the Floridian everglades, or heavy Brazilian ethanol subsidization. It is interesting to note that ethanol subsidization has been politically driven to attract the green vote, while practically it has caused far more problems than good. An interesting article can be found here, which explores the political link of environmental policies.

Continuing on, government subsidization for these crops increases economic incentive to destroy land for agriculture commercialization. Political minds may point to these socialistic policies as the source to blame. However, capitalistic market failures can also be seen as a reason behind land degradation. Since landowners profit from exhausting their land through production of items in demand, often landowners will act in the short term and forgo the environmental impact of short term thinking. Additionally, there is little liquidity available in current credit markets to fund conservation friendly farming ventures, and little interest due to the high initial investment. The problem is misinformation as the latter is a false assumption. It has been shown that improving “the functioning of financial markets will facilitate land conserving investments, but may also increase total agriculture investment, leading to expansion of cultivated area” **. Basically, investing in conservation friendly projects has a solid net return both financially and environmentally.

New technologies will also aid in preventing land degradation, as new practices could replenish land and reduce the cost that commercial agriculture on the land. Interestingly, from 1985 – 1995 Thailand saw a 17% reduction of the agricultural labour force as higher labour productivity resulted in the retirement of areas of agricultural land. Basically, investment in proper technology (and I stress proper) will improve productivity of land and decrease the need to allow for more land clearing.

Adding to this, many countries have attempted to establish land zoning, or laws restricting the growth of land degradation. In Ontario the Green Zone is an example of this, and the largest of these programs is actually in China, as the government’s Sloping Land Conversion program targeted an increase of China’s forested area by at least 10% by 2010. These projects are again inhibited by lack of incentive.

However, recently land degradation has seen some promising preventative actions. Recently in Rio de Janerio at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, 100 world leaders agreed to attempt to slow the increase of land degradation and improve the policy making tools at their disposal. Luc Gnacadja stated that “By 2020 the demand for food is likely to increase by 50%, and by 45% for energy and 30% for water. Each of these demands will claim more land. This will lead to more deforestation unless we commit to restore degraded land”. Commitment from countries is nice, but as seen from precedent it is less likely that most countries follow through on their promises.

A strong case study for land degradation can be seen in Australia which is the world’s driest continent. Agriculture occupies 60% of the total land, and livestock grazing is the most extensive use of land. As droughts and variable rainfall have a large affect on agriculture, Australia has initialized stronger environmental advocacy to prevent future disaster. Programs to create formal resource reserves, protection of land, provide security to wood resources and determine what sustainable wood harvesting levels are, and heavy investment in environmental monitoring has seem some success. A host of case studies can be found here.

To reiterate: deforestation, urbanization, pollution, irrigation, agricultural mining of nutrients cause land degradation. Stressors are erosion by wind/water, salination and alkalinization, destruction of soil structure and removal of organic matter from the soil. These problems have a heavy economic effect in the world, as it is strongly correlates with long term sustainability of current practices.

Again, understanding of this issue is paramount to developing proper policy. Land degradation is affected by irrigation, which is largely seen as a partial solution to water management. Seeing that one solution to one problem could cause another is the reasoning for a holistic understanding of the environment and the realization that the earth is truly an ecosystem that can be compared to dominoes. When one domino falls, it will hit another. The key is to prevent the first domino from falling, instead of attempting to prevent the fifth one from tumbling.

*(the UN 1996 conference to combat desertification can be credited for this definition)


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