With eye to hungry planet, new tech watches soil health

A zebra in Doma, Tanzania, pictured above. (© Conservation International/T.O.Schnader)

Climate change. Deforestation. Unsustainable development.

Each is taking a toll on the health of a limited resource: land.

Meanwhile, an estimated 10 billion people will walk the Earth by 2050 — how will humanity grow enough food on land that is increasingly tapped out?

To understand how to feed the world, we first need to understand the land — how healthy it is, what threats it faces, how people are using it. In partnership with NASA and Lund University in Sweden, Conservation International (CI) is combining satellite images and data to prevent land degradation.

The result? Trends.Earth, a free, open source online tool available to everyone from scientists to governments to help countries evaluate the status of their soil and to make the best decisions for their land — and for the people that depend on it.

Human Nature sat down with Tristan Schnader, Vital Signs Senior Project Manager at CI, and Alex Zvoleff, data science director at CI, to break down the tool and how world leaders are already using it.

Question: First of all, what is land degradation and what does it have to do with food?

Tristan Schnader (TS): Land degradation is when a combination of actions such as overgrazing, charcoal production, sand mining and climate change has resulted in lands that can no longer sustainably support livestock, threatening local livelihoods and straining household incomes.

To give you an example: In Morogoro, Tanzania, there was conflict between cattle grazers who pass through farms and allow their cows to graze on the land, because grazing patterns degrade the farmland. The government is trying to address the conflict, but ultimately, the cattle need to go somewhere, and it’s up to local decision-makers to come up with a resolution.

Another example is in Doma, Tanzania. There used to be a river there, but due to deforestation and erosion, now there’s just a series of split gullies, like split ends on a hair. There’s deforestation in this area because the community depends on charcoal for energy and for cooking. So, they cut down huge swaths of forest and they turn it into charcoal. The resulting river splitting causes eroded soil and stunted crops.

Q: So where does Trends.Earth fit it?

Alex Zvoleff (AZ): The global population is exponentially increasing, so food production and the resilience of land has never been more important than now. By 2050, the amount of food we produce needs to increase by 70 percent. If you want to be able to tackle an issue like land degradation, which exists pretty much everywhere that there’s farming and deforestation, then you need to look at the issue on a global scale, and until the creation of Trends.Earth, that hasn’t really happened.

To measure the current state of land degradation in four countries that had stakeholders who were interested in this project — Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Senegal — we took data sets (about land productivity, land cover and soil carbon, the factors that determine whether the land is degraded) that were available through open source and put them in one place: Trends.Earth.

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Q: Why does all the data need to be in one place? Aren’t different countries using the data in different ways?

TS: Until now, there were different reporting mechanisms for different organizations that gave aid to countries where land was degraded. Countries would report degradation to the Global Environment Facility (GEF), and report improvement to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). Essentially, different agencies were asking for different data sets.

GEF funded the project through CI’s program Vital Signs, and CI partnered with NASA and Lund University to build the tool. When we built the tool, we adopted the UNCCD’s standards, which use three indicators: productivity, the biological productive capacity of the land; land cover, the physical material covering the Earth’s surface; and soil carbon, the amount of carbon — both inorganic (from ores and minerals) and organic (found in nature through plants and living things) — stored in the soil.

What Trends.Earth does is make reporting a lot easier by standardizing the data and what’s being reported. The tool enables countries to assess the condition of their land on a regional basis and to report on whether areas of land have degraded, improved or remained stable.

Q: What’s the ultimate goal of Trends.Earth?

TS: The goal is to create a land degradation neutral world. Where there’s degradation in one area, there must be improvement to the same extent elsewhere.

AZ: The data isn’t news to local leaders: They know their land is degrading. They don’t need us to tell them. The data is more useful to national and international leaders who decide to send funding to areas that are identified as degraded, which can ultimately flow down to support local solutions. The data we produce directly is never going to be useful to farmers. They know what’s happening.

Tristan Schnader is a Vital Signs Senior Project Manager at CI and Alex Zvoleff is a data science director at CI. Morgan Lynch is a staff writer for CI.

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