Desertification and land degradation is "the greatest environmental challenge of our time" and "a threat to global wellbeing", according to the UN's top drylands official, Luc Gnacadja, who says people must be paid via global carbon markets for preserving the soil.
The executive secretary of UN's Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), will today launch the UN decade for the fight against desertification in London. "The top 20cm of soil is all that stands between us and extinction," he told the Guardian. Conflicts and food price crises all stem from the degradation of land, he added.
Land conflicts in Somalia, dust storms in Asia and the food price crises of recent years all stem from the degradation of land, he said, due to overuse by humans and the impacts of global warming. Since the early 1980s, a quarter of the planet's land has been despoiled and one per cent a year continues to be lost.
The better known issues of climate change and loss of biodiversity are both rooted in the global loss of fertile soil, said Gnacadja, as the soil harbours a huge stock of carbon and the health of creatures living in the soil underpins global food production and forest growth. The reason desertification has not been a priority is because 90 per cent of the 2.1 billion people who live in drylands live in developing countries, he said.
"Even in their own countries, they are the poorest among the poor and live in remote areas," said Gnacadja. "The world is driven by city dwellers: political leaders are setting agendas to satisfy people who live in the cities, we therefore tend to perceive soil as just dust, or mud, or a dumping place. But if we don't preserve that first 20cm of soil, where will we get our food and water from?" Half the world's livestock are raised on drylands and a third of crops, especially wheat.