The climate redefines the boundaries of agriculture

The climate redefines the boundaries of agriculture

February 19, 2020

The climate redefines the boundaries of agriculture

Global warming is also changing the geography of arable land, generating new potential resources, but also new global sustainability challenges 

It is a fact that many areas of land that were once unsuitable for cultivation are becoming so because of the climate changes taking place worldwide, while others, so far used for food production, are losing this ability. Thus the agricultural and productive geography in many countries is being transformed, with crops moving to follow changes in the climate. A study recently published in PLOS ONE analyzes in detail the positive and negative socio-environmental consequences of these changes, paying particular attention to the effects on food safety, water, biodiversity, protection of ecosystems and carbon emissions. All focusing on the so-called “agricultural frontiers”, lands that have always been considered difficult if not extreme and destined to become arable. 

More food for everyone?

One of the great challenges of this century is to be able to guarantee healthy and sufficient food for the world population which is estimated to grow to 10 billion by 2050. Again according to estimates, to meet this need, current food production will need to be increased by 70% without destroying the delicate balance that governs the environment and ecosystems in which we live. Among the solutions proposed is a switch to diets based mainly on vegetables or the use of new types of crops and new cultivation techniques, but there is no shortage of people pushing for an increase in arable land. 

In this respect, agricultural frontiers could represent great added value since they cover an area equal to 30% of existing agricultural land, with 56% of these areas confined to the northernmost regions of Russia and Canada. Furthermore, if managed correctly, the use of agricultural frontiers could also help achieve some of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, for example by creating food security and more work for the population. 

A high price for the environment and society

However, the exploitation of these new agricultural areas is not without risks and, according to the authors of the research, the price to be paid in environmental and social terms could be very high indeed. The study in fact evaluated various models of climate change and the consequent changes in the availability of 12 key types of crops, including wheat, sugar and cotton. 

At an environmental level, three main problems have to be taken into account: the release of carbon into the atmosphere, the risk of undermining biodiversity and the degradation of water. Agricultural frontiers in fact contain 177 gigatons of carbon that could end up in the atmosphere, which would equal over a century of CO2 emissions from the United States. As if this were not enough, cultivating these lands could impinge on the availability of water for over 1.8 billion people, not to mention that in the agricultural frontier lands there are several fundamental areas of biodiversity. 

Given that agricultural frontiers are often inhabited by indigenous peoples with very particular habits and needs, it is evident that only proper and prudent management of these lands will allow us to take advantage of the change while avoiding irreparable damage. 

Learn more about similar topics:

Find out more about Food and sustainability