Written by Rachele Rossi,

© wk1003mike / Shutterstock

Desertification is a land degradation process that occurs in drylands. It affects the land’s capacity to supply ecosystem services, such as producing food or hosting biodiversity, to mention the most well‑known ones. Its drivers are related to both human activity and the climate, and depend on the specific context. More than 1 billion people in some 100 countries face some level of risk related to the effects of desertification. Climate change can further increase the risk of desertification for those regions of the world that may change into drylands for climatic reasons.

Desertification is reversible, but that requires proper indicators to send out alerts about the potential risk of desertification while there is still time and scope for remedial action. However, issues related to the availability and comparability of data across various regions of the world pose big challenges when it comes to measuring and monitoring desertification processes. The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification and the UN sustainable development goals provide a global framework for assessing desertification. The 2018 World Atlas of Desertification introduced the concept of ‘convergence of evidence’ to identify areas where multiple pressures cause land change processes relevant to land degradation, of which desertification is a striking example.

Desertification involves many environmental and socio-economic aspects. It has many causes and triggers many consequences. A major cause is unsustainable agriculture, a major consequence is the threat to food production. To fully comprehend this two-way relationship requires to understand how agriculture affects land quality, what risks land degradation poses for agricultural production and to what extent a change in agricultural practices can reverse the trend. Cropland expansion and intensification of agriculture are among the drivers of land degradation processes that can lead to desertification. Yet, agriculture itself can provide solutions to land degradation.

Almost half of the EU Member States have declared that part of their territory is affected by desertification, yet there is no EU-level strategy to tackle this problem.

EU agricultural policy can have an impact on the elements and drivers of desertification, for example, by promoting sustainable agriculture in the awareness that protecting farmland productivity is of interest to the public and farmers alike.

Read this briefing on ‘Desertification and agriculture‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.