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Dryland Systems’ Integrated Research Influences Global Agenda on Land

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Cracked soil in the Gulf of Khombat. Photo Credit: IWMI / John Appleby

Millions of smallholders living in dryland areas are affected by widespread land degradation, a major contributor to persistent poverty and food insecurity. Until recently, the importance of restoring land and soil went unacknowledged in development discourse, but recent research for development efforts have placed it high on the global agenda.

Key messages „

  • land degradation and desertification are major global challenges „
  • systems thinking and sustainable practices provide solutions „
  • research has influenced new global target on land degradation neutrality
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Planting pistachio seeds as a soil and water conservation practice in Uzbekistan. Photo Credit: CACILM II / Sanobar Khudaybergenova

Rampant land degradation jeopardizes livelihoods, environment

Land degradation and desertification are global issues with huge implications for peace, health, wellbeing, and the very existence of our planet. Fifty-two percent of land used for agriculture worldwide is either moderately or severely affected by soil degradation. On a global scale, the loss of 75 billion tons of soil costs US$400 billion annually.

Introducing sustainable soil and land management practices is a key pathway for reversing this trend. Such practices have a range of benefits, including increasing the resilience of many vulnerable communities and sequestering excess carbon dioxide in the air into the soil, thus helping to mitigate climate change.

Overall, achieving a land degradation neutral world is expected to have significant and cumulative positive impacts for climate change mitigation, adaptation and a host of other development issues linked to food and water security, poverty agricultural production, particularly for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities living in dry areas.

Scientists work to advance systems approach and new practices

Scientists from the CGIAR Research program on Dryland Systems have been engaging with global policy makers on issues of land degradation and desertification for the past two years.

They have been aiming to enrich the science–policy collaboration under the framework of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) implementation. Providing innovative approaches and better scientific evidence for improved decision making, they are ultimately seeking to reverse global land degradation trends.

One key contribution in this regard has been the reflection of the integrated systems approach in key UNCCD thinking and policy-oriented recommendations. “A systems thinking approach can ensure a comprehensive understanding of constraints, costs, opportunities and appropriate decision-making processes that will allow the scientific community to transition into a truly research-for-development community to help solve both drylands and global challenges,” explains Richard Thomas, Director of Dryland Systems.

Scientists have also contributed to sparking and fostering innovative ideas, fruitful collaboration, and constructive science–policy debate on critical land issues linked to sustainable development of vulnerable dryland communities. For example, researchers have evaluated over 65 sustainable land management practices and technologies, involving 352,000 men and 117,348 women farmers, in over 7.5 million hectares, and rolled them out for large-scale implementation by private and public sector partners. 

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Triticale variety in Ethiopia. Photo Credit: ILRI / Zerihun Sewunet

Placing the value of land at the forefront of the global agenda

In 2015, research by Dryland Systems contributed to the formulation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and a global agreement on land degradation neutrality.

Years of research, coordinated by Dryland Systems under the framework of the global Economics of Land Degradation initiative, culminated in the publication of The Value of Land report. An accompanying report, Reaping Economic and Environmental Benefits from Sustainable Land Management, summarizes significant issues for policy and decision makers. It was presented to global policy makers participating in the 12th Conference of the Parties (COP12) to UNCCD in 2015.

The 195 Parties participating in COP12 agreed to a global deal that set a new environmental target: achieving land degradation neutrality by 2030. The UNCCD Bureau of the Committee on Science and Technology further endorsed the systems approach to meet the target.

Following these endorsements, the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly on adopting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) approved Target 15.3 on Land Degradation Neutrality.

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Irrigated crops at farm in India. Photo Credit: IWMI / John Appleby

Sustainable Development Goal on land degradation brings new opportunities

The new global target to achieve land degradation neutrality presents opportunities for countries to benefit from increased awareness of and investments in sustainable land management and restoration.

Most participants in COP12 welcomed the target set for each country to become land degradation neutral by 2030, arguing that such a measurable target would help to keep the amount of productive land available in each country stable, at the very least, as degrading land is offset by restoring an equal amount of already degraded land. Harry Palmier, Chair of Dryland Systems’ Independent Steering Committee, shares the positive outlook:

We hope that the global commitment to reducing the negative effects of climate change and land degradation will be matched with increased investment in the years to come. Investment in systems approaches is critical to tackle climate change adaptation and mitigation, and to combat the land degradation that affects the lives of millions of smallholder producers and consumers in developing countries.”


This activity was led by the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems and was supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.

About the author

Marianne Gadeberg is a freelance writer, editor, and communications specialist.

References „



Agricultural livelihood systems: 

UN Sustainable Development Goals addressed: 


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