Terraced fields on the Loess Plateau, Pengyang County


© George Steinmetz / Contrasto


The world’s population is expected to grow to about nine billion people by 2050. This means that demand for food will increase, and we need more and more land to grow food. One way to do this is through terracing, a system used around the world to cultivate rural, mountainous and hilly areas. Although terraces are pretty to look at, entire areas have to be reshaped to construct them, changing the area’s very morphology, and making it much more sensitive. Their neglect and abandonment can lead to a loss of productive soil and an increase in hydrogeological risk. This is not an improbable risk, since even parts of the world that are typically more rural and agricultural are seeing an exodus of their inhabitants to cities.
And as if that weren’t enough, fertilisers, herbicides, and pesticides have long been used extensively to achieve greater productivity. Once released, fertilisers rich in nitrates and phosphates can end up in water and become a food source for algae, which reproduce out of control, reducing the amount of oxygen in water and seriously impacting the life of the aquatic ecosystem. It is estimated that the advent of intensive farming has doubled the concentration of nitrates in groundwater.
A report from the Paris Climate Conference (COP21) states that nearly one-third of the world’s arable land has disappeared over the past 40 years because of intensive farming practices. In fact, growing land exploitation has caused much of that soil to progressively lose fertility, leading to field abandonment and desertification. This will most certainly have a social impact, since the exhaustion of fertile lands, paired with the growing population, will inevitably trigger greater struggles for land control.

Andrea Pozzobon