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Reviewing the links between desertification and food insecurity: from parallel challenges to synergistic solutions

Abstract

The challenges of desertification and food insecurity share considerable common ground, not only in terms of their myriad biophysical, political and socioeconomic drivers and links to the productivity of the land and soil, but also in the discourses and approaches that have informed their management. This paper reviews the elements common to both challenges and argues that due to their cross-cutting nature and the parallel pathways along which each issue has evolved, there is a strong case to be made for taking a synergistic approach towards the development of future solutions. In particular, it is argued that livelihoods and vulnerability approaches could be used as a common platform to inform more integrated interventions. This could enable multiple benefits to be harnessed for both challenges.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    Drylands are often divided into sub-categories according to the extent of the aridity they experience. Aridity is commonly assessed using the ratio of mean annual precipitation to the mean annual evaporative demand, expressed as potential evapotranspiration. The mean of this ratio over the long term is known as the aridity index (AI; MA 2005). The sub-categories and their aridity indices are:

    (1) hyper-arid areas (AI < 0.05), (2) arid areas (0.05 < AI < 0.20), (3) semi-arid areas (0.20 < AI < 0.50), and (4) dry sub-humid areas (0.50 < AI < 0.65; Middleton and Thomas 1997).

  2. 2.

    Desertification in its simplest form can be defined as ‘land degradation in drylands’. A more comprehensive discussion of the debates surrounding this definition as well as the challenges in measuring desertification is provided later in the paper.

  3. 3.

    Until recently, research on desertification has also been viewed separately from advances made in understanding climate change and biodiversity loss, despite the obvious inter-linkages through efforts to enhance sustainable land management (Thomas 2008).

  4. 4.

    This may appear surprising as animals are dependent on plants for food. However, researchers such as Behnke and Scoones (1993) and Ellis and Swift (1988) have demonstrated that plant production in drylands is fundamentally determined by rainfall and is less affected by animal population densities, because in extended drought periods animals die off due to a lack of water, keeping the population below the level at which they cause irreversible damage (Illius and O’Connor 1999).

  5. 5.

    This is particularly important for desertification, which has been largely overshadowed by international investments in efforts to address climate change (Ortiz and Tang 2005).

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Acknowledgements

I would like to say thank you to Evan Fraser (University of Leeds), who provided some very helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper; as did the two anonymous reviewers and editor-in-chief who I would also like to thank for their thoughts and suggestions.

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Stringer, L.C. Reviewing the links between desertification and food insecurity: from parallel challenges to synergistic solutions. Food Sec. 1, 113–126 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12571-009-0016-0

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Keywords

  • Food security
  • Desertification
  • Poverty
  • Malthusian discourse
  • Livelihoods
  • Vulnerability