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444. State of the World’s Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture-Key Messages

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In December 2021, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) released a Synthesis Report on the World's Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture (SOLAW 2021), warning that human activities are pushing land, soil and water systems to the limits of their productive capacity and that we are on the verge of a "systems at breaking point" situation. Climate change is putting additional pressure on rainfed and irrigated production systems, which are already facing environmental constraints due to decades of unsustainable practices. Below is a summary of the key messages of the report.

The state

There is a growing body of evidences indicating that the interrelated system of land, soil and water has already reached its limits and that the agricultural systems across the global food system are failing. An approach that addresses land, soil and water as interconnected systems is required.

The current pattern of agricultural intensification, with its pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, is not sustainable. Burdens on land, soil, and water resources are stunting the productivity of major agricultural systems and threatening people's livelihoods. Increased evapotranspiration due to climate change affects land and crop suitability by affecting the amount and distribution of rainfall, and also causes significant changes in runoff to rivers and groundwater recharge.

Agricultural systems have become polarized. While large commercial land holdings dominate agricultural land use, small-scale farmers are relegated to areas facing land degradation and water scarcity and are engaged in subsistence farming on fragmented farmland. In order to maintain productivity, comprehensive land and water governance is needed to promote sustainable resource management.

The challenges

Human-induced land degradation, soil runoff, soil salinization, and groundwater contamination may not seem like urgent risks, but they are extremely serious. The future of agricultural production depends on how well we manage the risks to land, soil, and water resources. Land, soil, and water management must find a way to maintain synergy as a system. This is a prerequisite for maintaining improved agricultural production without harming the environment.

Conservation of land, soil, and water resources, especially long-term maintenance of soil fertility, is essential to ensure food access in a food chain that is experiencing unprecedented demand for food. While there is little time left to reverse the trend of resource degradation and depletion, the complexity and scale of the task should not be underestimated.

Responses and actions

Governance of land, soil, and water must be more inclusive and adaptive. Comprehensive governance is essential for the allocation and management of natural resources, without which technological methods to mitigate land degradation and water scarcity will not be successful.

An integrated approach is required for the diffusion of technology. With solid planning, it is possible to define a watershed range of natural resource systems to reverse land degradation through a package program of technology, institutions, governance and financial support.

Technological and management innovations should be prioritized and targeted to accelerate transformation. Restoring neglected soils, responding to drought, and adapting to water scarcity can be addressed through the adoption of new technological and management approaches.

Agricultural support and investment should be directed to the social and environmental benefits derived from land, soil and water management. Agricultural finance for subsidies to maintain land, soil, and water systems is also being considered.

The tools for sustainable planning and management are in place. What is needed is improved data collection. Monitoring the relationship between climate change impacts and agro-ecosystem suitability is essential for resource use planning. With improved agricultural research, the options available for land, soil, and water management are expanding. Comprehensive land and water governance requires the coordination of policy, legal, and institutional arrangements.

There is no "one size fits all" solution. Instead, a full package of workable solutions is required to address food production, soil degradation, water scarcity and other issues. However, the success of such an endeavor depends on an enabling environment, political will, strong policies, inclusive governance, and the participation of all relevant sectors and landscape stakeholders in the planning process. 


The JIRCAS video on Food system, science and technology for the future of the Earth and food also explains the problems of land, water, and natural resources by conveniently polarizing the current food system into large-scale commercial systems and small-scale agricultural systems.


FAO. 2021. The State of the World’s Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture – Systems at breaking point. Synthesis report 2021. Rome. https://www.fao.org/documents/card/en/c/cb7654en 

This translation was not created by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). FAO is not responsible for the content or accuracy of this translation.

Contributor: IIYAMA Miyuki (Director, Information Program)