Land degradation will remain an important global issue for the 21st century because of its adverse impact on agronomic productivity, the environment, and its effect on food security and the quality of life. Productivity impacts of land degradation are due to a decline in land quality on site where degradation occurs (e.g. erosion) and off site where sediments are deposited. However, the on-site impacts of land degradation on productivity are easily masked due to use of additional inputs and adoption of improved technology and have led some to question the negative effects of desertification. The relative magnitude of economic losses due to productivity decline versus environmental deterioration also has created a debate. Some economists argue that the on-site impact of soil erosion and other degradative processes are not severe enough to warrant implementing any action plan at a national or an international level. Land managers (farmers), they argue, should take care of the restorative inputs needed to enhance productivity. Agronomists and soil scientists, on the other hand, argue that land is a non-renewable resource at a human time-scale and some adverse effects of degradative processes on land quality are irreversible, e.g. reduction in effective rooting depth. The masking effect of improved technology provides a false sense of security.
The productivity of some lands has declined by 50% due to soil erosion and desertification. Yield reduction in Africa due to past soil erosion may range from 2 to 40%, with a mean loss of 8.2% for the continent. In South Asia, annual loss in productivity is estimated at 36 million tons of cereal equivalent valued at US$5,400 million by water erosion, and US$1,800 million due to wind erosion. It is estimated that the total annual cost of erosion from agriculture in the USA is about US$44 billion per year, i.e. about US$247 per ha of cropland and pasture. On a global scale the annual loss of 75 billion tons of soil costs the world about US$400 billion per year, or approximately US$70 per person per year.
Only about 3% of the global land surface can be considered as prime or Class I land and this is not found in the tropics. Another 8% of land is in Classes II and III. This 11% of land must feed the six billion people today and the 7.6 billion expected in 2020. Desertification is experienced on 33% of the global land surface and affects more than one billion people, half of whom live in Africa.