Klaus Töpfer: "Land degradation undermines humankind’s prospects of living in peace"



Professor Dr Klaus Töpfer was Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1998 to 2006. Today, he serves as Executive Director of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) based in Potsdam, Germany, which he co-founded in 2009. Prior to joining the United Nations in 1998, he was Germany’s Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (1987 to 1994) and Federal Minister for Regional Planning, Housing and Urban Development from 1994 to 1998. In 2012, Professor Töpfer was inducted in the “Earth Hall of Fame Kyoto”.

How would you describe the current state of land degradation?

Over the last 50 years, the worldwide amount of arable land per person has decreased by 50 per cent and much of the remaining area is degraded. More than 90 per cent of our food is produced on land and in 2050, nine billion people will want to live without hunger. So the decrease in the amount of fertile land available is seriously undermining humankind’s prospects of living in peace.

At the Rio+20 Summit, the call for a land-degradation neutral world was made. What’s your view on that?

A land-degradation neutral world is a challenging goal which needs to be complemented with targets and timelines. The Millennium Development Goals overlooked two important aspects: land and energy. The post-2015 agenda with its Sustainable Development Goals should not repeat that mistake and should instead make protecting land a priority. But it’s not necessarily about trying to achieve a binding international agreement – these are often very difficult to accomplish, and failure to achieve an agreement could serve as an excuse for doing nothing, which is something we want to avoid. There are many other options available. I myself am a strong advocate for awareness-raising, for example.

Who are the key target groups which we need to engage?

Too many people are still ignoring the parlous state of our land and soils. Therefore, we have to reach out to the wider public and convince people that we need to change the way we treat land and soil.

We need to intensify our cooperation with farmers and industrial sectors which are directly linked to food production and infrastructure.

In my view, it is vital to adopt integrated responses to land degradation, addressing all three pillars of sustainability: economy, ecology and society. Governance responses need to begin with the local and national level where soil and land-use decisions are taken. They will also need to ensure that relevant global soil functions are sustained. In this context I recommend a review of the effectiveness of international agreements, both binding and voluntary.

How should the international community go about achieving its goal?

I think that the concept needs to be action-oriented. For instance, it is crucial to assess changes in land use and analyse their implications for soil stability and fertility.

Many people argue that land is primarily a local and national issue. But this view overlooks the secondary effects of land degradation which transcend national boundaries, such as climate change in the long term and sand storms which have immediate effects. This is why the international community has to address land issues and develop common guidelines.

Land degradation is not only a problem faced by the global South. Of course, in Africa or Asia it is combined with other challenges such as climate change and a massive increase in population, so it poses a major threat. But we should be aware that Germany, for instance, imports food and fodder grown on more than 70 million hectares of agricultural land and forestry in other countries such as Argentina or China. So it would be very short-sighted for countries not directly affected by land degradation to ignore this massive challenge. Germany, for instance, has a responsibility to ensure that other countries’ land is not degraded, for it relies on healthy soils overseas.

What should be the first step?

Action to reverse land degradation is urgently needed and it is needed now. From my perspective, a good starting point would be to identify test regions in order to collect hard data on land degradation.

Capacity building is another key area of action. Farmers need to be aware of the possibilities to manage land more sustainably at the local level. The knowledge is available; it just needs to be brought to the people who depend on it.

Today, farmers lose around one third of their harvest on the way to market due to inadequate infrastructure and cooling chains, for example. We can easily reduce this unnecessary loss by investing in infrastructure. It is vital to help local farmers manage their land more sustainably.

In addition, the industrialised countries must abandon their welfare approach to international trade. If people in the Northern hemisphere changed their consumption and production patterns for the good of land worldwide, a lot would be gained. © UNCCD