Land Degradation, Desertification and Food Security in India

19 November 2019 Kitila Davies, Research Assistant, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme Download PDF

Key Points

  • Reducing land degradation is key to improving agricultural production, food security and poverty rates. It is, additionally, a cheap and effective method of capturing atmospheric carbon emissions that could slow the rate of climate change.
  • Land degradation and desertification have been brought into sharp relief by the recent United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification meeting in Delhi.
  • Projects that aim to minimise desertification and increase land reclamation could account for 30 per cent of the emissions reduction needed to meet the 1.5 degrees Celsius target under the Paris Agreement.
  • India suffers from some of the highest rates of desertification globally. It is likely to suffer from extreme biodiversity loss, a decline in living standards and GDP losses unless action is taken to reduce desertification.



Desertification and land degradation are gradually reducing the capacity of ecosystems in affected regions to sustain life. The degradation of land reduces biodiversity and contributes to climatic changes, while reducing land productivity and the ability for communities to sustain livelihoods. The international community has taken steps to bring the issue to the forefront of development discussions, as its effect on food and water security is felt globally.

India is one of 70 countries that are party to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), which has pledged to reach land degradation neutrality targets by 2030 as a part of the Convention’s Land Degradation Neutrality Strategy. While land reclamation is important, the more pressing concern is to help communities cope with the immediate effects that desertification has on their economic situation and quality of life. A number of initiatives seek to increase land productivity and improve climate adaptability in the country.



Land degradation is the loss of biodiversity and productivity that arises from the physical, chemical and biological degradation of the land. It affects the entire natural environment and has far reaching effects on human welfare and the global economy. Desertification is a consequence of severe land degradation and is defined by the UNCCD as a process that creates arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas. Desertification is often the end result of human activities and climatic factors that cause soil erosion, a decline in soil quality and the loss of natural vegetation.

Degraded land is a threat multiplier for communities, as it slowly reduces people’s ability to use their land and limits their access to resources. It can exacerbate existing societal tensions and force migration as rural livelihoods are threatened. Estimates suggest that if the problem is not addressed, land degradation and desertification will affect 3.2 billion people by 2050. As many as 700 million people in the most affected regions could be left with little option but to migrate by 2050.

Developing countries are disproportionately affected by land degradation, with 72 per cent of the world’s affected land located in these regions. It is estimated that 1.2 billion people in developing countries are exposed to poor governance and climate stress that has trapped them on degraded agricultural land and excluded them from sustained economic development.

The main anthropogenic factors contributing to land degradation include deforestation and land clearing for economic use and to cope with increasing urbanisation. In some instances, the economic demand for agricultural land has led not only to land clearing but also over-cultivation, over-grazing, insufficient crop rotations and the overuse of agrochemicals. These practices are focused on short-term production and profitability in order to meet the demand of growing populations.

The effects of climate change compound and exacerbate land degradation. The current global food system contributes roughly 25-30 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change, and the extreme weather conditions that are expected to accompany it, will affect all facets of food security by reducing production in many parts of the world, increasing prices and disrupting supply chains. These changes will be felt by low income countries harming rural communities the most.

Reversing land degradation can help to slow the rate of climate change. Carbon sequestration is an important function of soil, as it can retain three times as much carbon as the atmosphere if soil quality can be managed. Practices that degrade land, however, contribute one-third of anthropogenic greenhouse gases. Conserving the capacity of carbon sinks, such as agricultural soils, therefore provides an important opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as improving agricultural productivity, income, sustainability and biodiversity.

United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification

The UNCCD aims to reverse the loss of agricultural land and mitigate the effects of drought. It is the only legally binding international agreement that integrates environment and development issues with the aim of achieving sustainable land and water management. The fourteenth Convention of the Parties (COP14) was held in New Delhi at the beginning of September 2019 and brought together political representatives of 196 countries, scientists, private businesses, industry leaders and non-profit organisations to discuss actions for sustainable development. A core objective of the UNCCD is the goal of achieving land degradation neutrality, where the loss of productive land is balanced by the restoration of degraded land.

The New Delhi Declaration was the decision of the parties to invest in land restoration and drought preparedness. India has pledged to invest in a global institute to support member countries in reducing land degradation. One hundred of those countries have set land degradation neutrality targets and 70 of them are participating in the UNCCD’s Drought Initiative to improve drought management.

The COP14 was concluded around four key points: first, that land restoration is the cheapest solution to slow climate change; second, regulations and incentives rewarding investment in land restoration are economically sensible; third, as climate change exacerbates dry land areas, drought preparedness and management needs to become a priority; and last, ensuring that there is a gender balance, youth are engaged and land rights are protected should be priorities. India also agreed to recover 26 million hectares of degraded land.

Indian Agriculture, Food Security and Land Degradation

India supports 18 per cent of the global population on only 2.4% of the world’s land mass, a situation that heightens the contributing factors and implications of land degradation that it faces. Land degradation affects about 30 per cent of all land in India. Climate change is one of the main drivers of land degradation in India. Projections suggest that, under a carbon intensive scenario, India will lose US$1,177.8 billion ($1,730 billion) by 2050 as a result of climate change. In 2014-15 land degradation, and the associated reduction in productivity, reduced Indian GDP growth by 2.5% – which is equal to about US$50 billion ($73.4 billion).

The erosion of topsoil, mainly due to heavy rainfall washing it away, remains the main cause of land degradation in India. It reduces the land’s ability to act as a carbon sink and natural water store while undermines food security. With water sources already at risk from extreme weather conditions, scarcity and the progressive contamination of groundwater reserves, the loss of the water retention qualities of soil would further weaken Indian agriculture.

The agricultural sector provides employment for 44 per cent of the Indian workforce, with more than 70 per cent of Indians relying on the sector as a source of income despite it accounting for less than 20 per cent of the economy. Other than during the green revolution, overall growth in the sector has been at a consistent low of two per cent per annum since the 1950s, with chronic underemployment plaguing the highly migratory and majority female labour force.

It is estimated that India’s demand for food will grow at a rate of two to three per cent until 2025, with demand outpacing supply by 2035 – even if productivity increases at its current rate. Factors that contribute to the increasing demand for food are reflected in trends similar to those in other developing countries: a shift in consumption habits is due to rising consumerism and a growing middle class that has increased demand for products such as proteins, fruits, dairy, packaged goods and high-end products.

India is estimated to waste or lose 30 per cent of the food produced annually through losses that mainly occur during the production, transport and storage stages of the supply chain. Decentralised value-chains and logistical and supply chain improvement would offset food waste and reduce prices for consumers while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving food security. Management techniques that involve changing diets would allow for a greater variety of crops, less water needed for production and improved nutrition, which would reduce land degradation, food waste and provide more equitable access to food.

While Indian food security is challenged by more than land degradation, it is the land that is most likely to be affected by climate change. The dependency on land makes the Indian economy susceptible to changes in climate with estimates projecting that climate change would have negative effects on consumption expenditures and could reduce income by 9.8 per cent in the most susceptible areas. These areas are mostly in central India and are characterised by low adaptive capabilities where significant increases in temperature could trigger a health crisis among the 148 million people that inhabit them.

What is India doing?

Minimising further land degradation in India is hoped to be achieved by: improving living standards, increasing educational attainment, reducing water stress and expanding employment in the non-agricultural sector. The Indian Government has committed to improving the sustainable management of land and water resources by funding a number of organisations that aim to reduce land degradation by improving and managing soil health.

A research team from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research has been working on a project based in Telangana in collaboration with the Indian Government, policymakers, NGOs and farmers. The project has been testing the adaptive opportunities for rural communities to respond to climate change and its associated risks. An outcome of the project has been the Climate Information Centres (CLICs), which act as a platform to inform farming practices by collating information and communication technology, traditional and scientific weather knowledge and local rainfall measurements. The success of the CLICs has led to the funding of 36 centres in Telangana to improve agricultural management in terms of when to plant crops based on weather conditions and improving the adaptive capabilities of the communities in dealing with climate variability.

As a signatory to the UNCCD, India has also implemented a range of policies and programmes to combat land degradation and desertification with the goal of achieving land degradation neutrality. The CLICs will provide information that will be integral for the International Fund for Agriculture Development’s Drought Mitigation Project in Andhra Pradesh’s five desertified districts in the hope of improving the community’s climate adaption and land restoration strategies.

The Bonn Challenge is an international afforestation commitment under which India has pledged to restore 13 million hectares of degraded and deforested land by 2020 and a further eight million by 2030. Despite pledges such as this, the current Modi-led government has approved 506 infrastructure projects to be undertaken in India’s Protected Areas and “Eco-Sensitive Zones”. Those projects could represent a troubling development when they are added to the 260 projects cleared under the preceding government, as these protected areas store 15 per cent of global land carbon.

What could India do?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on Climate Change and Land endorsed a number of measures that could be taken by countries to reduce land degradation and desertification. Short-term measures can be taken to protect biodiverse wetlands, rangelands and mangroves, all of which act as carbon sinks. Preserving the quality of land through afforestation, tree-planting and ecosystem restoration would improve the ability of land to store CO2. Land reclamation programmes also help to reduce extreme weather conditions associated with desertification by acting as “green walls” that reduce sand and wind erosion.

State investment in land reclamation activities that motivate farmers to get involved through economic incentives would help deter rural communities from harmful practices that contribute to land degradation. Low- or no-till agricultural methods, holistic grazing and shallow underground drip irrigation would improve the productivity of land, which would have positive effects on the welfare of the communities and the wider environment.

The green revolution in India saw the widespread use of fertilisers that increased agricultural productivity at the cost of soil quality. The overuse of fertiliser is a major determinant of land degradation, and reducing its use would improve the situation, but lobbying and political pressure from farming groups prevents India from reducing subsidies that encourage fertiliser use.

Reducing desertification would enhance soil fertility which would improve agricultural production, food security and carbon sequestration. That would improve the health of ecosystems, which would not only preserve biodiversity but would also raise living standards for people living in regions suffering from land degradation and desertification.

Ensuring long-term food and water security will require mitigating harmful practices that contribute to land degradation and desertification while shifting the food system away from practices that are resource, land and carbon intensive. Preparing communities in India to adapt to the effects that land degradation has on livelihoods and the environment is best done through the management and preparedness that was shown in Telangana State with the support of the CLICs. That could provide a model for the rest of the regions in India that are struggling to cope with the consequences of land degradation. With the support of the international community and the UNCCD India has the potential to make progress towards combating desertification while improving the adaptive capabilities and quality of life for communities in the regions suffering from land degradation.

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