The high alpine grasslands in the heart of Asia have been home to yak and sheep herders for centuries. But they are starting to disappear from much of this vast area. One major reason is overgrazing and depletion of the soil. Some parts of the grasslands are now called the "Black Beach" - a parched moonscape that has had its nutrients sucked out of the earth.
Largely gone, too, is the land's ability to hold large amounts of carbon. It's no small loss. The depleted grasslands here and around the world, along with degraded farmlands, are an open wound not only because of the loss of productive land but also because they are a lost opportunity to slow and reverse climate change.
With negotiators in Copenhagen trying to work out a new global climate deal, a key question is whether transforming the use of agricultural land, such as those in the alpine Asian terrain, will be included.
Negotiators need to look to farmers - and the use of farmland - for help. There should be no doubt today that climate change, agricultural land and food production are inextricably linked. There is no separating these powerful factors that are elemental to our survival.
First, let's think about food. The world's population is expected to grow to 9 billion by 2050 - a 50 percent increase. It means we'll need to produce 70 percent more food by then. How do we do that?
The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that $210 billion is needed in agricultural investments every year in order to produce the required amount of food. But investments in agricultural practices that promote soil carbon capture can make agriculture part of the solution in the fight against climate change, rather than part of the problem, while increasing production and improving the livelihood of small-scale farmers.
Now, agriculture is one of the major sources of greenhouse gas emissions producing, according to the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, roughly 12 to 14 percent of all emissions. But healthy soils, like trees, can be great carbon capturers. Farmers and herders need to use new practices - or adapt centuries-old practices - to put more organic matter in the soil, and then keep it there. More organic content holds more carbon; and more carbon in soils boosts agricultural production by creating higher levels of nutrients in plants and retaining greater amounts of water.
This is where the Copenhagen climate change negotiators need to step in. The question now doesn't involve science - we understand the value of better soils for food production and to capture more carbon. The question in Copenhagen should be how to finance needed innovations in agriculture to unleash these multiple benefits.
What's needed is a way to create a carbon-financing scheme in which new funding streams are literally put back into the land - funneled into wise agricultural investments to improve farming and agro-forestry practices that increase food production as well as combat climate change.
Part of the beauty in this is that this change won't take years. This isn't like developing alternative energy sources that require huge infrastructure investments, or installing new technologies to reduce emissions from current energy sources. Instead, this new green agricultural movement can begin right away.
There are several entry points. One is a massive effort to help farmers and herders build up organic matter in soils. It could mean taking herds of sheep or goats off overgrazed grasslands for several years. It could mean more careful measuring of carbon in soils to determine successes and failures and to decide where to focus efforts. And it could mean that farmers till the soil less and apply more organic fertilizers such as manure and mulch.
In many of the world's degraded agricultural lands, much has been lost. Now it's time to bring life back to these lands. Not only do we need better soils for food production, but also we need the soils to lock up carbon. Better soils will give life.
The author is assistant director-general of the Natural Resources Management and Environment Department of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization.
(China Daily 12/16/2009 page9)