Compared to other limited resources, from fossil fuels to fresh water, we don’t pay much attention to the stuff we’re standing on. But as the human population climbs beyond seven billion and living standards improve, productive land is increasingly put-upon. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, nearly 20 million hectares of arable land, an area the size of Cambodia, are sacrificed to development annually, and another 12 million are lost to desertification, a process that will only accelerate as climate change intensifies. As productive terrain vanishes, rival land uses may come into competition for limited space. “Both the tea industry and the grain industry are looking to expand into the same areas in Africa, but there’s a finite amount of land available,” says Ann-Marie Brouder, Principal Sustainability Advisor at Forum for the Future. As journalist Fred Pearce documents in his book The Land Grabbers, when industrial sectors rush to claim available land, ecosystems and rural livelihoods are often collateral damage. In South Sudan, for instance, diverse industries, from South African brewing to Norwegian forestry to Egyptian private equity, are trying to get their hands on arable land; the Egyptian firm plans to irrigate its newly acquired farmland via a massive canal that would drain wetlands and destroy pastures….
By Ben Goldfarb