The natural grasslands – more than half of the global land area – are largely in poor condition. In up to 50 percent of these areas, known as rangelands, the soil quality has been reduced, experts write in a UN report that was published.

It is a “serious threat to humanity’s food supply and the well-being or even survival of billions of people,” said the Secretariat of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) in Bonn.

“When we cut down a forest, when we see a 100-year-old tree fall, it triggers an emotional reaction in many of us, and rightly so. The conversion of ancient pastures, on the other hand, happens in complete silence,” said UNCCD Executive Secretary Ibrahim Thiaw.

Much of the earth consists of rangelands

Rangelands are various landscapes grazed by game and livestock with primarily natural vegetation. These semi-natural grasslands include prairies, steppes, savannahs, bushlands, deserts and tundras. However, forests and intensively used agricultural areas are not included.

Overall, rangelands make up around 54 percent of the land area on earth, according to the UN report. “They represent a sixth of global food production and almost a third of the Earth’s carbon storage,” writes the UNCCD. In total, around two billion people depend on these areas. 84 percent of the rangelands are therefore used for livestock breeding.

According to the report, problems include low soil fertility and nutrients, erosion, salinization and soil compaction. “All of these factors contribute to drought, rainfall variability and the loss of biodiversity above and below ground.”

Negative impacts from new farmland

The UNCCD cites changes in land use as the main reasons for the poor situation. Pastures are being converted into arable land, also driven by the rapidly growing demand for food, textile fibers and biofuel. It is also problematic when pastures are excessively used by herds of animals – or when they are no longer cared for by shepherds and become wild. The climate crisis and loss of biodiversity are also affecting rangelands, according to the UNCCD.

In many West African countries, around 80 percent of the population is employed in livestock farming. In Central Asia and Mongolia, 60 percent of the land area is used as pasture, and almost a third of the population there makes a living from livestock breeding. There are also large rangelands in North and South America, in large parts of Africa and in Australia.

In the USA, however, large parts of the grassland have been converted into arable land, and some Canadian grassland areas are being damaged by large-scale mining and infrastructure projects. In Europe, many rangelands have given way to urbanization, reforestation and renewable energy production, the report said.

And in Germany?

In Germany there are no rangelands according to the UNCCD definition, as a map in the report shows. There is also grassland in this country, said grassland expert Anja Schmitz from the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN) to the German Press Agency. It accounts for about a third of the agricultural area. With a few exceptions, the grassland vegetation here was not created naturally, but rather through agricultural use, said Schmitz. Unlike the rangelands, the grassland in this country is shaped, fertilized, maintained through cultivation and grasses are often specifically sown. Meadows are mown several times a year and farm animals are kept in fenced pastures.

But there is also natural pasture farming in Germany, said Schmitz. Think, for example, of alpine pastures in the mountains or wandering shepherds who, with their animals, contribute to the preservation of important grassland biotopes in the cultural landscape. Where animals graze, species diversity is generally greater than in frequently mown meadows, said Schmitz.

The UNCCD experts recommend, among other things, better protection of so-called pastoralism. This refers to a way of life that is thousands of years old, in which itinerant shepherds keep sheep, goats, cattle, horses, camels, yaks and llamas, among other things. “Despite having an estimated half a billion people worldwide, pastoralist communities are often overlooked, have no say in policy decisions affecting them, are marginalized and are often viewed as outsiders in their own country,” Thiaw said.