Across the vast rangelands of West Africa, pastoralist farmers have long kept herds of cattle, sheep and goats, but the livestock, and herders incomes, are starting to decrease in many areas. Drought, rising population pressure and inadequate management have contributed to widespread depletion of soils - with nutrients being sucked out of the earth.
Largely gone, too, is the land’s ability to hold large amounts of carbon. It’s no small loss. The beaten-down land here and around the world, along with degraded farmland, are an open wound not only because of the loss of productive land but also because it is a lost opportunity to slow and reverse climate change.
With negotiators gathering now in Copenhagen to try to work out a new global climate deal, a key question is whether transforming the use of agricultural lands, such as those on the West Africa rangelands, will be included.
Negotiators need to look to farmers—and the use of farmland—for help. There should be no doubt today that climate change, agricultural lands, and food production are all inextricably linked.
There is no separating these powerful factors that are elemental to our survival.
First, let’s think about food. The world’s population is expected to grow to 9 billion people by the year 2050—a 50 percent increase.
It means we’ll need to produce 70 percent more food by then. How do we do that?
The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that $210 billion is needed in agricultural investments every year in order to produce the required amount of food.
Now, agriculture is one of the major sources of greenhouse gas emissions producing, according to IPCC, roughly 12 to 14 percent of all emissions. But healthy soils, like trees, can be great carbon capturers.
Farmers and herders need to use new practices—or adapt centuries-old practices—to put more organic matter in soils, and then keep it there.
More organic content holds more carbon; and more carbon in soils boosts agricultural production by creating higher levels of nutrients in plants and retaining greater amounts of water.
This is where the Copenhagen climate-change negotiators need to step in. The question now doesn’t involve science—we understand the value of better soils for food production and to capture more carbon.
The question in Copenhagen should be how to finance needed innovations in agriculture to unleash these multiple benefits.
What’s needed is a way to create a carbon-financing scheme in which new funding streams are literally put back into the land—funneled into wise agricultural investments to improve farming and agro-forestry practices that both increase food production and combat climate change.
This new green agriculture movement can begin right away.
There are several entry points. One is a massive effort to help farmers and herders build up organic matter in soils.
It could mean taking herds of sheep or goats off overgrazed rangelands in Africa for several years; it could mean more careful measuring of carbon in soils to detect successes and failures and to determine where to focus efforts; and it could mean that farmers till the soil less and apply more organic fertilizers such as manure and mulch.
In many of the world’s degraded agricultural lands, much has been lost.
Now it’s time to bring life back to these lands. Not only do we need better soils for food production, but we also need the soils to lock up carbon. Better soils will give life.
Alexander Müller is Assistant Director-General of the Natural Resources Management and Environment Department of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.