Systems at breaking point

State of the world’s land and water resources for food and agriculture: The synthesis report 2021
Sustainable agricultural practices lead to water saving, soil conservation, sustainable land management, conservation of natural resources, ecosystem and climate change benefits. (Image: Maheshwara, Pixahive)
Sustainable agricultural practices lead to water saving, soil conservation, sustainable land management, conservation of natural resources, ecosystem and climate change benefits. (Image: Maheshwara, Pixahive)

The past decade has seen the advent of several important global policy frameworks including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030, the Small Island Developing States Accelerated Modalities of Action, the New Urban Agenda and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on Financing for Development.

The frameworks have introduced the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and land degradation neutrality (LDN). In particular, there are dedicated SDGs for water, and targets for land and soil health. The frameworks are accompanied by global assessments of natural resources, including soils, forestry, biodiversity, desertification and climate.

The State of the world’s land and water resources for food and agriculture: Systems at breaking point (SOLAW 2021) report aims to take stock of the implications for agriculture and recommend solutions for transforming the combined role of land and water in global food systems.

The uncertainty of climate change and the complex feedback loops between climate and land present agriculture with amplified levels of risk that need to be managed. A global viewpoint to a convergence of factors putting unprecedented pressure on land and water resources, leading to a set of human impacts and shocks in the supply of agricultural products, notably food.

The SOLAW 2021 report argues that a sense of urgency needs to prevail over a hitherto neglected area of public policy and human welfare, that of caring for the long-term future of the land, soil and water.

Shocks, including severe floods, droughts and the COVID-19 pandemic tend to divert attention away from development priorities. International finance institutions warn of the widening fault-lines between developed and developing countries in meeting global goals while facing resurgent infections and rising death tolls from COVID-19. Recovery programmes offer opportunities to address urgencies and kick-start the process of change, including in land and water management.

Land, soil and water form the basis of the FAO commitment to the changes advocated in the 2021 United Nations Food Systems Summit. However, recognition and actions are needed to redirect the focus onto the land, on which 98 percent of the world’s food is produced.

Taking care of land, water and particularly the long-term health of soils is fundamental to accessing food in an ever-demanding food chain, guaranteeing nature-positive production, advancing equitable livelihoods, and building resilience to shocks and stresses arising from natural disasters and pandemics.

They all start from land and water access and governance. Sustainable land, soil and water management also underpins nutritious, diverse diets and resource-efficient value chains in the shift to sustainable consumption patterns.

SOLAW 2021: Key points

The SOLAW 2021 report comes at a time when human pressures on the systems of land, soils and freshwater are intensifying, just when they are being pushed to their productive limits. The impacts of climate change are already constraining rainfed and irrigated production over and above the environmental consequences resulting from decades of unsustainable use.

The SOLAW 2021 report builds on the concepts and conclusions given in the previous SOLAW 2011 report. Much has happened in the intervening years. Recent assessments, projections and scenarios from the international community paint an alarming picture of the planet’s natural resources – highlighting overuse, misuse, degradation, pollution and increasing scarcity.

Rising demands for food and energy, competing industrial, municipal and agricultural uses, and the need to conserve and enhance the integrity of the Earth’s ecosystems and their services make the picture extremely complex and full of interlinkages and interdependencies.

The SOLAW 2021 report adopts the driver–pressure–state–impact–response (DPSIR) approach. This is a well-established framework for analysing and reporting important and interlinked relationships among sustainable agricultural production, society and the environment.

The DPSIR approach provides a structure to report on cause–effect relationships to arrive at key policy recommendations and enable policymakers to assess the direction and nature of changes needed to advance sustainable management of land and water resources.

The drivers of demand for land and water resources are complex. By 2050, FAO estimates agriculture will need to produce almost 50 percent more food, livestock fodder and biofuel than in 2012 to satisfy global demand and keep on track to achieve “zero hunger” by 2030.

Progress made in reducing the number of undernourished people in the early part of the twenty-first century has been reversed. The number has risen from 604 million in 2014 to 768 million in 2020. While prospects for meeting the nutritional requirements of 9.7 billion people by 2050 at the global level exist, problems with local patterns of production and consumption are expected to worsen, with increasing levels of undernourishment and obesity among the steadily growing and mobile population.

Options to expand cultivated land areas are limited. Prime agricultural land is being lost to urbanization. Irrigation already accounts for 70 percent of all freshwater withdrawals. Human-induced land degradation, water scarcity and climate change are increasing the levels of risk for agricultural production and ecosystem services at times and in places where economic growth is needed most.

Most pressures on the world’s land, soil and water resources derive from agriculture itself. The increase in use of chemical (non-organic) inputs, uptake of farm mechanization, and overall impact of higher monocropping and grazing intensities are concentrated on a diminishing stock of agricultural land. They produce a set of externalities that spill over into other sectors, degrading land and polluting surface water and groundwater resources.

The impacts from accumulating pressures on land and water are felt widely in rural communities, particularly where the resource base is limited and dependency is high, and to a certain extent in poor urban populations where alternative sources of food are limited. Human-induced deterioration of land, soil and water resources reduces production potential, access to nutritious food and, more broadly, the biodiversity and environmental services that underpin healthy and resilient livelihoods.

A central challenge for agriculture is to reduce land degradation and emissions and to prevent further pollution and loss of environmental services while sustaining production levels. Responses need to include climate-smart land management attuned to variations in soil and water processes.

Management options are available to increase productivity and production levels if innovation in management and technology can be taken to scale to transition to sustainable agrifood systems. However, none of these can go far without planning and managing land, soil and water resources through effective land and water governance.

Increasing land and water productivity is crucial for achieving food security, sustainable production and SDG targets. However, there is no “one size fits all” solution. A “full package” of workable solutions is now available to enhance food production and tackle the main threats from land degradation, increasing water scarcity and declining water quality.

The SOLAW 2021 report indicates how institutional and technical responses can be packaged to address the challenges of increasing water and food security within land, soil and water domains, and, more widely, across agriculture and food systems. It stresses the importance of integrated approaches in managing land and water resources.

Sustainable land management (SLM), sustainable soil management and integrated water resources management (IWRM) are all examples of such approaches, which can be blended with technology innovation, data and policies to accelerate improvement in resource-use efficiency, raise productivity and align progress with SDGs.

Inclusive forms of land and water governance will be adopted at scale only when there is political will, adaptive policymaking and follow-through investment. A primary focus on land and water governance is essential in creating the transformative changes needed to achieve patterns of sustainable agriculture that can enhance income and sustain livelihoods while protecting and restoring the natural resource base.

Significant complementary efforts will also be needed in food systems beyond the farm to maximize synergies and manage trade-offs in related sectors, particularly energy production. For this to happen, changes in policy, institutional and technical domains that disrupt “business as usual” (BAU) models may prove necessary.

Key messages of SOLAW 2021

The state

  • The interconnected systems of land, soil and water are stretched to the limit. Convergence of evidence points to agricultural systems breaking down, with impacts felt across the global food system.
  • Current patterns of agricultural intensification are not proving sustainable. Pressures on land and water resources have built to the point where the productivity of key agricultural systems is compromised and livelihoods are threatened.
  • Farming systems are becoming polarized. Large commercial holdings now dominate agricultural land use, while fragmentation of smallholders concentrates subsistence farming on lands susceptible to degradation and water scarcity.

The challenges

  • Future agricultural production will depend upon managing the risks to land and water. Land, soil and water management needs to find better synergy to keep systems in play. This is essential to maintain the required rates of agricultural growth without further compromising the generation of environmental services.
  • Land and water resources will need safeguarding. There is now only a narrow margin for reversing trends in resource deterioration and depletion, but the complexity and scale of the task should not be underestimated.

Responses and actions

  • Land and water governance has to be more inclusive and adaptive. Inclusive governance is essential for allocating and managing natural resources. Technical solutions to mitigate land degradation and water scarcity are unlikely to succeed without it.
  • Integrated solutions need to be planned at all levels if they are to be taken to scale. Planning can define critical thresholds in natural resource systems, leading to the reversal of land degradation when wrapped up as packages or programmes of technical, institutional, governance and financial support.
  • Technical and managerial innovation can be targeted to address priorities and accelerate transformation. Caring for neglected soils, addressing drought and coping with water scarcity can be addressed through the adoption of new technologies and management approaches.
  • Agricultural support and investment can be redirected towards social and environmental gains derived from land and water management. There is now scope for progressive multiphased financing of agricultural projects that can be linked with redirected subsidies to keep land and water systems in play.

The full report can be accessed here

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