“Silent demise” of world’s vast rangelands threatens food supply of billions, warns UNCCD report

“Silent demise” of world’s vast rangelands threatens food supply of billions, warns UNCCD report
A Nomadic herder on the steppe in Mongolia, home to the largest grasslands in Eurasia. / Sergio Tittarini from Shanghai, cc-by-sa 2.0
By bne IntelliNews May 21, 2024

Up to 50% of the world’s rangelands, vital to humanity’s food supply, are degraded, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) on May 21 warned in a newly-released stark report.

The report on the “silent demise”, which threatens the wellbeing of billions, was released in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, a country particularly vulnerable to the dangers posed to rangelands, a category of Earth’s land cover consisting mostly of natural grasslands used by livestock and wild animals to graze and forage.

Mongolia’s Environment Minister Bat-Erdene Bat-Ulzii said: “As custodian of the largest grasslands in Eurasia, Mongolia has always been cautious in transforming rangelands. Mongolian traditions are built on the appreciation of resource limits, which defined mobility as a strategy, established shared responsibilities over the land, and set limits in consumption.

“We hope this report helps focus attention on rangelands and their many enormous values – cultural, environmental, and economic –  which cannot be overstated. If these rangelands cannot support these massive numbers of people, what alternatives can they turn to?”

Authors of the Global Land Outlook Thematic Report on Rangelands and Pastoralists have examined the degradation of Earth’s extensive, often immense natural pastures and other rangelands due to overuse, misuse, climate change and biodiversity loss.

They observed that symptoms of the dilemma include diminished soil fertility and nutrients, erosion, salinisation, alkalinisation, and soil compaction inhibiting plant growth. All of this contributes to drought, precipitation fluctuations and biodiversity loss both above and below the ground.

Said UNCCD: “The problem is driven largely by converting pastures to cropland and other land use changes due to population growth and urban expansion, rapidly rising food, fibre and fuel demands, excessive grazing, abandonment (end of maintenance by pastoralists), and policies that incentivise overexploitation.”

The rangelands include savannas, shrublands, wetlands, tundra and deserts. Added together, the rangelands constitute 54% of all land cover, account for one sixth of global food production and represent nearly one third of the planet’s carbon reservoir.

“When we cut down a forest, when we see a 100-year-old tree fall, it rightly evokes an emotional response in many of us. The conversion of ancient rangelands, on the other hand, happens in ‘silence’ and generates little public reaction,” says UNCCD executive secretary Ibrahim Thiaw.

“Sadly, these expansive landscapes and the pastoralists and livestock breeders who depend on them, are usually under-appreciated,” Thiaw added. “Despite numbering an estimated half a billion individuals worldwide, pastoralist communities are frequently overlooked, lack a voice in policy-making that directly affects their livelihoods, are marginalised, and are even often seen as outsiders in their own lands.”

(Credit: Karen Launchbaugh, University of Idaho, College of Natural Resources, public domain.)

Mongolia will host the 17th UNCCD Conference of the Parties meeting in 2026. That year will serve as the International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists (IYRP), as declared by the United Nations General Assembly on Mongolia’s initiative.

Two billion people—small-scale herders, ranchers and farmers, often poor and marginalised—depend on healthy rangelands worldwide, according to UNCCD.

In many West African states, livestock production employs 80% of the population. In Central Asia and Mongolia, 60% of land area is used as grazing rangelands, with livestock herding supporting nearly one third of the region’s population.

“Ironically, the report underlines, efforts to increase food security and productivity by converting rangelands to crop production in mostly arid regions have resulted in degraded land and lower agricultural yields,” said UNCCD.

The report calls out “weak and ineffective governance,” “poorly implemented policies and regulations,” and “the lack of investment in rangeland communities and sustainable production models” for undermining rangelands.

The report’s 60-plus expert contributors from over 40 countries agree that past estimates of degraded rangeland worldwide – roughly 25% – “significantly underestimates the actual loss of rangeland health and productivity” and could be as much as 50%.

Rangelands are often poorly understood and a lack of reliable data undermines the sustainable management of their immense value in food provisioning and climate regulation, the report warns.

The report, said UNCCD, details an innovative conceptual approach that would enable policy makers to stabilise, restore and manage rangelands. 

The new approach is backed by experience detailed in case studies from nearly every world region, drawing important lessons from successes and missteps of rangeland management.

A core recommendation is to protect pastoralism, a mobile way of life dating back millennia centred on the pasture-based production of sheep, goats, cattle, horses, camels, yaks, llamas or other domesticated herbivores, along with semi-domesticated species such as bison and reindeer. 

Said Thiaw: “From the tropics to the Arctic, pastoralism is a desirable default – and often the most sustainable … that should be incorporated into rangeland use planning.”

The report includes detailed analyses of individual countries and regions:

  • Livestock production accounts for 19% of Ethiopia’s GDP, and 4% of India’s. In Brazil – which produces 16% of the world’s beef – fully one-third of agribusiness GDP is generated by cattle livestock.
  • In Europe, many rangelands have given way to urbanisation, afforestation and renewable energy production. Also in Europe, policies favouring industrial farming over pastoralism and misguided incentives are causing rangelands and other open ecosystems to be abandoned and degraded.
  • In the United States, large tracts of grassland have been converted to crops, while some Canadian grasslands have been made fragile by large-scale mining and infrastructure projects. There are also many positive notes such as, for example, growing efforts in both countries to reintroduce bison – an animal of great cultural importance to indigenous peoples – to promote rangeland health and food security.
  • World areas most acutely affected by rangelands degradation, ranked in descending order: Central Asia, China, Mongolia.
  • Conflict, power balance and border issues have interrupted livestock mobility leading to rangelands degradation in Sahel and West Africa. Unified policies, recognition of pastoralists’ rights and cross-border agreements are reestablishing mobility for animal herders, crucial for landscape restoration.
  • Climatic change, deforestation linked to industrialised agriculture and extractive activities, and land use conversion are South America’s main drivers of rangeland degradation.
  • Multifunctionality and diversity of pastoralist systems hold the key for restoring some of the most interesting rangelands in the world, including the Pampa, the Cerrado and Caatinga savannahs, and the Puno Andean systems.
  • Migration and forced displacement caused by competing uses of land (such as hunting, tourism, etc), are evicting pastoralists from their traditional lands in East Africa, causing unanticipated degradation consequences. Women-led initiatives and improved land rights are securing pastoralists’ livelihoods, protecting biodiversity, and safeguarding the ecosystem services provided by rangelands.
  • The degradation of ancient grasslands and dry rangelands threatens the biodiversity of iconic North American ecosystems such as the tall-grass prairies or the southern deserts. The incorporation of indigenous people to rangeland governance is a clear step to help recover these historic landscapes.
  • Afforestation, mining, and the conversion of rangelands to other uses are causing the degradation and loss of rangelands in South Africa and Australia. The co-creation of knowledge by producers and researchers, and respect for and use of traditional wisdom held by indigenous communities, open new paths for restoring and protecting rangelands.

Halting the deterioration requires a paradigm shift in management at every level – from grassroots to global, the report concludes.

Pedro Maria Herrera Calvo, the report’s lead author, says: “The meaningful participation of all stakeholders is key to responsible rangeland governance, which fosters collective action, improves access to land and integrates traditional knowledge and practical skills”.

Maryam Niamir-Fuller, co-chair of the International Support Group for the UN’s International Year for Rangelands and Pastoralists – 2026, said: “Imbalance between the supply of and demand for animal forage lands leads to overgrazing, invasive species, and the increased risk of drought and wildfires – all of which accelerate desertification and land degradation trends around the world.

“We must translate our shared aspirations into concrete actions – stopping indiscriminate conversion of rangelands into unsuitable land uses, advocating for policies that support sustainable land management, investing in research that enhances our understanding of rangelands and pastoralism, empowering pastoralist communities to preserve their sustainable practices while also gaining tools to thrive in a changing world, and supporting all stakeholders, especially pastoralists, to implement measures that effectively thwart further degradation and preserve our land, our communities, and our cultures.”

Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, CEO and chair of the Global Environment Facility, commented: "For the sake of future generations and economic stability, we need to improve awareness of and safeguard the immense value of rangelands. Due to their dynamic nature, predicting the consequences of rangelands degradation on economics, ecology, and societies is challenging. Managers require authoritative insights into the response of rangelands to different disturbances and management approaches, including policy tools that better capture the broad social importance of rangelands."