If we are to lower food prices and support farmers, we need to restore land

Land restoration is the key to a well-functioning food system, healthier nature and stable climate.

A man carries a plastic bucket across the cracked bed of a dried-up pond in Vietnam's southern Ben Tre province on March 19
A man carries a plastic bucket across the cracked bed of a dried-up pond in Vietnam's southern Ben Tre province on March 19, 2024. - [Nhac Nguyen/AFP]

In recent years, people everywhere have endured soaring food prices, coupled with growing concerns for the wellbeing of those who produce food. There are multiple reasons for these higher food costs: from geopolitical tensions to the COVID-19 pandemic to accelerating climate change. Farmers, retailers and consumers are all feeling the heat.

However, drought and land degradation, which are exacerbated by climate change, are the gravest threats to livestock and crops worldwide. This is one of the reasons why this year’s World Environment Day is calling for land protection and restoration to address land degradation, drought and desertification – and bring immediate social, economic and environmental net gains.

Land degradation and drought harm 3.2 billion people worldwide, including across East Africa, India, the Amazon basin, and large swaths of the United States. In Europe, even though summer is not yet in full swing, some areas are already on drought alert. In the near future, one in five people in China will face more droughts. Australia’s farmers are bracing for a 20-year-long megadrought. In the next 25 years, land degradation might reduce food productivity by 12 percent and raise food prices by almost a third. In the same period, the average family income will drop by 20 percent because of climate change. This is a global problem.

Delaying action on climate and nature loss pushes us into a vicious cycle: climate change further degrades soils, which makes farmers’ work harder and less profitable. They need more subsidies, chemicals and fertilisers to make more of less-fertile land, delivering less-nutritious food, and exacerbating the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and land loss, and pollution and waste.

We can stop this vicious cycle by helping nature to regenerate. The results already in are phenomenal. Multiple initiatives to build back degraded farmlands, forests, savannas, grasslands, peatlands and cities are making vast areas arable again and creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs. This is happening across the Mediterranean, in Africa, South and East Asia and in Small Island Developing States like Vanuatu. Areas like the Central American corridor that previously depended on aid have become self-sufficient following restoration efforts.

Expanding such actions is a good deal for nature, for people and for economies. In fact, the cost of action is six times lower than inaction. According to a report by the United Nations Environment Programme, half the world’s gross domestic product (GDP) depends on nature and every US dollar invested in restoration creates up to $30 in economic benefits.

UN member states recognised the power of restoring land and other ecosystems in a unanimous vote at the 2019 UN General Assembly, which dedicated this decade to ecosystem restoration. Action is accelerating. Governments across the world have pledged to restore a total of 1 billion hectares (2.47 billion acres) of land – an area larger than China. Last year, six countries pledged to restore 300,000km (about 186,400 miles) of rivers and 350 million hectares (865 million acres) of wetlands. Such efforts not only restore nature, bolster food security and improve livelihoods – they advance climate goals by helping to store carbon. But they need to be backed by strong efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including by ending the era of fossil fuels, as climate change is a major driver of land degradation, desertification and drought.

This year, Saudi Arabia is hosting the 2024 World Environment Day and the largest-ever UN conference on land and drought, with a focus on land restoration, desertification and drought resilience. This is a welcome effort for the world and the region. Three-quarters of arable land in the Middle East is already affected by land degradation. With global warming affecting the region twice as fast as the global average, its entire population will face water scarcity by 2050.

World Environment Day, which we mark on June 5 every year, offers everyone an opportunity to act. Organise or join an event wherever you are. Incorporate nature goals into your business. If you are able to vote this year, consider the climate and nature policies that are on the ballot. And we must all act. The cost-of-living crisis and the issues facing farmers are real. The solution is also real: restoring land and other ecosystems for a functioning food system, for healthier nature, for higher incomes and for a stable climate.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.