Agriculture: The Other Global Change Agent

Joe Fargione is The Nature Conservancy’s lead scientist for the North America region.

Last October, the Food and Agriculture Organization released a report titled “How to Feed the World in 2050.” How humanity answers this question will be just as important to conservation as the question of how we will mitigate climate change.

Why? Because increasing demands for food will lead to an expansion of agriculture into natural areas, with dramatic consequences for species that depend on those habitats.

The report says that global population will increase from its current size of 6.8 billion to 9.1 billion by 2050, an increase of 34 percent. Economic growth will ensure that this population demands more meat, meaning that overall demand for food will increase by 70 percent by 2050. And that doesn’t count increases in demand expected to occur due to biofuels, which is the most land-intensive form of energy production.

The good news is that the FAO predicts that we can meet this demand, although increased investment in agricultural development will be needed. Crop yields per acre will continue to increase, allowing us to produce more crops on existing farmland.

The bad news for conservation is that large areas of newly cultivated lands will also still be needed to feed the world in 2050. This trend is not new. Over the past decade, the amount of land used for agriculture has increased by over 8 million acres per year, according to FAO data. But the amount of new land cleared for agriculture is much higher, because each year some existing farmland is lost to degradation and expanding human settlement.

Agricultural expansion threatens rainforests in the Amazon, Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. These lands are not only home to an incredible diversity of species, they provide valuable natural services to people, including carbon storage, climate regulation, provision of fresh water, medicines, and other forest products.

The FAO predicts that cropland will undergo a net gain of 170 million acres by 2050, but because cropland will be lost in developed countries, there will be a cropland increase of 300 million acres in developing countries. This is an area three times all the land in California.

The FAO report was issued just a month after the death of Norman Borlaug, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for founding the “Green Revolution.” By breeding higher yielding varieties of crops, Dr. Borlaug is estimated to have saved more than 1 billion people from starvation.

What is often less appreciated are the benefits that Dr. Borlaug and other agronomists have provided to conservation. If today’s crops had the same yields as the crops of 1960, we would require about 2.5 times as much cropland for cereal and oil as we currently have. There would not be much land left over for nature. The Green Revolution and subsequent yield increases spared upwards of 1 billion acres from conversion to agriculture.

As Yogi Berra said: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” We hope that crop yields grow faster than demand, that we can adapt to climate change’s impact on agriculture, and that the growth in biofuels occurs through methods that don’t require additional land and are compatible with wildlife. But there are no guarantees. In order to conserve land for nature, a lot depends on our ability to innovate and make more productive use of existing croplands.

“If you want to fight for the environment,” said Bill Moyers, “don’t hug a tree, hug an economist.” Moyers was citing the work of economists to include hidden environmental costs in market prices. Given the important land-sparing benefits of increased agricultural yields, Moyers might have just as well suggested that you embrace an agronomist.

(Image credit: thegreenpages/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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  1. As an independent consulting agronomist, we are helping farmers continue to produce higher crop yields with sustainable practices using judicial use of fertilizers and pesticides and new crop traits. Growing higher yields on the present farmland will allow more land to be managed for native species diversity.

  2. Would large-scale hydroponic gardening significantly reduce need for more land and reduce carbon imprint by reducing need for cultivation. Despite “green” claims, it might be true that use of fertilizers increase crop yields, again reducing land use. Sorry about that, but we can’t feed the world population right now without fertilizer.

  3. true farming for the future does not leave deficits at the top soil bank unless you cover the shortfall in your own life time.

  4. The prospects for Agricultural Water Conservation will only get better once the younger generation of farmers adopt the new methods – one of which is the use of the Tree T Pee.
    Savings billions and billions of gallons of fresh water just by the Citrus Growers in Florida. Has the potential to be used by almost every tree grower.

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