"Oil wells go dry and coal seams run out, but for the first time since the Industrial Revolution began we are investing in energy sources that can last forever." –Lester R. Brown, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.
Chapter 8. Raising Land Productivity: Restoring the Earth
The trends in soil erosion, grainland productivity, and urbanization discussed here and in Chapter 3 suggest a need to stabilize world population at a low level. The advantages of stabilizing at 7.4 billion (the low end of U.N. projections for 2050) rather than 8.9 billion (the medium projection) are clear. But it will require a substantial investment in education, health, and family planning in poor countries. Although at first glance it might appear to be costly, it will be far more costly if we fail to do so.42
Paralleling the effort to quickly stabilize population size is the need for the world's affluent to eat lower on the food chain and lighten the pressure on the earth's land and water resources. In a country where starchy subsistence diets prevail, as in India, annual grain consumption per person is roughly 200 kilograms, or a bit over a pound a day. At this level, nearly all the grain must be consumed directly to meet basic caloric needs, leaving little for conversion into animal protein. At the other end of the scale is the United States, where grain consumption per person exceeds 800 kilograms per year. Of this, only a small part is consumed directly in the form of bread, pastry, and breakfast cereals. The bulk is eaten indirectly as meat, milk, and eggs. Unfortunately for most Americans, consumption of fat-rich livestock products is excessive, leading to numerous health problems.43
The world's healthiest people are not those living at the top or the bottom of the grain consumption ladder, but rather those somewhere in the middle. In Italy, for example, grain consumption per person is less than 400 kilograms a year. Italians eat some animal protein, including meat and a variety of cheeses, but meat is more of a condiment than an entrée in Italian cuisine. Even though far less is spent on health care per person in Italy than in the United States, Italians live longer. People on the so-called Mediterranean diet live longer than either those with a diet that is heavy in fat-rich livestock products or those who get 70 percent of their calories from a single starchy staple, such as rice. If the more affluent of the earth's inhabitants who are living high on the food chain consume less animal protein, not only will they be healthier but so will the earth.44
In reviewing the literature on soil erosion, references to the "loss of protective vegetation" occur again and again. Over the last half-century, we have removed so much of that protective cover by clearcutting, overgrazing, and overplowing that we are losing soil accumulated over long stretches of geological time almost overnight. Arresting this and the resultant decline in the earth's biological productivity depends on a worldwide effort to restore the earth's vegetative cover. Efforts to reverse this degradation are now under way in some countries.
As of 2003, for example, some 14 million hectares of U.S. cropland—roughly one tenth of the total—have been planted to grass and trees under the Conservation Reserve Program. And Algeria, trying to halt the northward advance of the Sahara Desert, is concentrating its orchards and vineyards in the southern part of the country, hoping that these perennial plantings will halt the desertification of its cropland. Only time will tell if this program, launched by Ministry of Agriculture officials in December 2000, will succeed.45
China may be facing the biggest challenge on the land degradation front. At the heart of its effort to halt the advance of existing deserts and the formation of new ones is a program to pay farmers in the threatened provinces to plant their cropland in trees. By 2010, 10 million hectares of grainland are to be covered with trees, representing easily one tenth of China's current grainland area.46
In Inner Mongolia (Nei Monggol), efforts to halt the advancing desert and to reclaim the land for productive uses initially involved planting desert shrubs to stabilize the sand dunes. And in many situations, sheep and goats are banned entirely and cattle are brought in instead. In Helin County, south of the provincial capital of Hohhot, such a strategy is yielding results. The planting of desert shrubs on abandoned cropland has now stabilized the county's first 7,000-hectare reclamation plot. Based on this success, the reclamation effort is being expanded.47
The Helin County strategy is centered on a shift from sheep and goats to dairy cattle, increasing the number of dairy animals from 30,000 in 2002 to 150,000 by 2007. The cattle will be largely stall-fed, eating cornstalks, wheat straw, and the harvest from a drought-tolerant leguminous forage crop resembling alfalfa, which is growing on reclaimed land. Local officials estimate that this program will double incomes within the county during this decade.48
To relieve pressure on the country's rangelands, Beijing is asking herders to reduce their flocks of sheep and goats by 40 percent. But in communities where wealth is measured in livestock numbers and where most families are living in poverty, such cuts are not easy or likely unless alternative livelihoods are offered along the lines proposed in Helin County. Indeed, unless governments, with support from the international community, can devise comprehensive programs to bring the size of grazing flocks and herds down to the carrying capacity of the land, grasslands will continue to deteriorate.49
One of the big challenges is to eliminate overgrazing on the two fifths of the earth's land surface classified as rangelands. The only viable option in many cases is to reduce the size of flocks and herds. But this is not easy in pastoral communities where livestock are the sole means of livelihood. Not only do the growing numbers of cattle, and particularly sheep and goats, remove the vegetation, but their hoofs pulverize the protective crust of soil that is formed by rainfall and that checks wind erosion. Here the solution is to shift to stall feeding of animals, cutting the forage and bringing it to them. Stall-feeding is labor-intensive and thus is a good fit for developing countries with many small holdings, an excess of labor, and a shortage of productive land. As noted, India has been a leader in adopting this practice, particularly within its thriving dairy industry.50
Another way to reduce pressure on the land is to shift from the use of fuelwood to renewable energy sources—everything from solar cookers to wind-generated electricity. Protecting the earth's remaining vegetation also warrants a ban on clearcutting forests in favor of selective cutting, simply because with each clearcut, the land typically suffers heavy soil losses until the forest regenerates. Thus with each cutting, productivity declines further.
Restoring the earth's tree and grass cover protects soil, reduces flooding, and sequesters carbon. It is one way we can restore the earth so that it can support not only us, but our children and grandchildren as well.
42. United Nations, op. cit. note 2.
43. Ibid.; USDA, op. cit. note 1; Gary Gardner and Brian Halweil, Underfed and Overfed: The Global Epidemic of Malnutrition, Worldwatch Paper 150 (Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute, 2000).
44. Grain consumption per person from USDA, op. cit. note 1; United Nations, op. cit. note 2; life expectancy from Population Reference Bureau, 2002 World Population Data Sheet, wall chart (Washington, DC: August 2002).
45. USDA, Farm Service Agency Online, op. cit. note 37; "Algeria to Convert Large Cereal Land to Tree-Planting," Reuters, 8 December 2000.
46. Chinese program from Sun Xiufang and Ralph Bean, China Solid Wood Products Annual Report 2002 (Beijing: USDA, June 2002).
47. Data are from discussion with officials of Helin County, Inner Mongolia (Nei Monggol), 17 May 2002.
49. U.S. Embassy, Grapes of Wrath in Inner Mongolia (Beijing: May 2001).
50. India's dairy industry from Banerjee, op. cit. note 28.
Copyright © 2003 Earth Policy Institute