Friday, August 31, 2007

Dirt isn't so cheap: Soils conference in Iceland

IPS: Soil erosion is the "silent global crisis" that is undermining food production and water availability, as well as being responsible for 30 percent of the greenhouse gases driving climate change. "We are overlooking soil as the foundation of all life on Earth," said Andres Arnalds, assistant director of the Icelandic Soil Conservation Service.

"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," Arnalds told IPS from Selfoss, Iceland, host city of the International Forum on Soils, Society and Climate Change which starts Friday.

Along with many other international partner institutions, Iceland is marking the centenary of its Soil Conservation Service by convening this forum of experts. Every year, some 100,000 square kilometres of land loses its vegetation and becomes degraded or turns into desert. "Land degradation and desertification may be regarded as the silent crisis of the world, a genuine threat to the future of humankind," Arnalds said.

…"Soils are under greater pressure than ever before," [Australia’s Andrew] Campbell said in an interview. "Governments around the world are subsidising crops to produce biofuels." Hundreds of millions of square kilometers of farmland will soon be used to meet a small part of the world's rapidly growing thirst for fuel. And even if rainforests aren't being cleared to grow biofuel crops, as is the case in parts of Asia and South America, they offer little if any net environmental benefits, Campbell argues. Another reason to rethink the stampede to biofuel: These crops use a lot of water. In future, there will simply not be enough water to grow the food we need, he says.

…Land degradation and desertification may account for as much as about 30 percent of the world's greenhouse gas releases, according to researcher Rattan Lal of Ohio State University. These changes to the land also alter the water, temperature and energy balance of the planet. And climate change makes land degradation much worse and more extensive, mainly through changes in precipitation and increased evaporation that trigger more extreme weather.

…Ending the estimated 30 billion dollars in food subsidies in the north that contribute directly to land degradation in Africa and elsewhere, and which force poor farmers to intensify their production in order to compete, would be a good start, Adeel said.

For Andrews, a sweeping change in how land use decisions are made at all levels of government is needed. Soil, water, energy, climate, biodiversity, food production are all interconnected, which demands integrated policy-making. Decisions and policies are currently set by different governmental departments and agencies with little regard for the impacts on other sectors, he said.

"We have battled very severe land degradation in Iceland that has taken us 100 years to tackle," Arnalds said. That degradation means one-third of Iceland's 103,000 sq km area is still desert. Iceland has should serve as both a warning to other countries and hope that it is possible to restore degraded lands with enough resources, he says. "It is far better to preserve than restore," the scientist noted.

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