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Overfarming adding to world's desert wastelands

desert scenes June 21, 1998
Web posted at: 5:56 p.m. EDT (2156 GMT)

From Correspondent Natalie Pawelski

(CNN) -- Each year, the world loses valuable arable land because of the steady expansion of deserts. That loss, experts are warning, may eventually prove disastrous for some nations since they could one day find themselves without the possibility of growing their own food.

The problem of dust and desert once was also a problem in the United States, where the searing heat and swirling clouds of the dust bowl broke the spirit -- and the bank accounts -- of many farmers in the 1930s. But after years of drought, the rain came back. And as the farmers had learned from their previous mistakes, the prairie eventually recovered.

But even if duststorms are a thing of the past in Arkansas, some of the same bad farming practices still prevail in many other parts of the world.

Each year, a land area bigger than the U.S. state of Texas (266,807 square miles/691,030 square kilometers) is lost to farming -- possibly forever.

Growing Deserts
icon 1 min. 51 sec. VXtreme video

The U.S. authorities have pointed out that desertification, which occurs when dry but farmable land is overused to the point of exhaustion, is indeed a global issue.

"There are problems with desertification wherever there are semi-arid areas, and that includes almost all of the continents," Ann Carey of the U.S. Agriculture Department told CNN.

"The threat of desertification or the desertification vulnerability includes about one third of the world's land surface," Carey said.

Desertificaton is particularly affecting the African continent, where the Sahara desert alone, stretching nearly the width of northern Africa, is now growing longer, too: it reaches nearly 100 miles (60 kilometers) closer to the equator than it did half a century ago.

Should the process continue, experts are warning, then some central African countries could one day lose the ability to grow their own food.

The situation could even get worse should fears of global warming prove to be true: a hotter and drier climate would accelerate desertification worldwide.

The United Nations addressed the issue of desertification at the international Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. One measure it recommended was to plant trees and crops that can thrive in dry conditions and keep the soil from being blown away.

Such measures, experts hope, will stop farmlands from turning into wastelands.

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