Grassland and shrub-covered areas used to graze animals or as sources of fodder have declined by 191 million hectares over two decades to 3,196 million hectares in 2019. According to a report on land and water resources, published today (Wednesday, December 9) by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), this land was then converted to cropland. The report states that 13% of this grassland area is degraded due to high anthropogenic - human-influenced - pressures, and 34% has reduced biophysical status due to overgrazing and inadequate livestock mobility causing soil compaction and erosion. This affects soil function, plant growth and hydrological services.

In a section of the report entitled, State of Land, Soil and Water, it explained that intensive livestock production, which has grown rapidly to meet expanding demand for meat - particularly in middle- to high-income countries - places pressure on water and soil resources for intensive feed and forage production.

"Concentrating inputs and animal waste have resulted in higher energy use from fossil fuels, higher methane emissions and higher point source water pollution from nutrients and antibiotics."
Land degradation classes for global land cover - 2015. Image source: FAO report
The report outlined that more than 60% of irrigated areas in Northern Africa, South Asia and the Middle East and Western Asia are degraded.

The largest degraded areas are in the northern hemisphere, except for southeast Asia.

Globally, only 38% of irrigated land is stable.

Agricultural expansion

Expansion of the agricultural sector in the Middle East and Western Asia - including grazing and accessibility - drives degradation, it explained.

While in densely populated areas of East and South Asia, good accessibility and high grazing density are exerting high pressures on irrigated fields.

Grazing, accessibility and deforestation drive environmental change in irrigated cropland in Southeast Asia. Grazing, accessibility and agricultural expansion contribute most to the pressure for irrigation expansion in the eastern United States of America.