Climate change means farmland will increase in the future but could pose threat to environment, says new study
As climate change drastically impacts the land available for farming, agriculture is springing up in new fields across the world. Global warming will increase the amount of land suitable for key crops in agriculture, but new research shows that it's more complicated than simply choosing to plant in new, previously unused areas.
Findings from the Betty and Gordon Moore Center for Science in Arlington, Virginia shows that farming in these regions - at higher altitudes and latitudes - that were previously not used as farmland, may be detrimental to the environment.
While such land is being sought out by farmers to solve the growing global population, the unintended consequences of farming on new land was yet to be explored prior to this new research.
Lee Hannah, top researcher at Conservation International's center in Virginia, says that future farming in regions that were previously unsuitable for agriculture could "significantly impact biodiversity, water resources and greenhouse gas emissions".
Such areas that the industry may consider "frontiers" for future farming actually pose threats to entire ecosystems by disrupting wildlife. The subject is highly under-studied and there are a slew of poorly understood environmental impacts that could create global ripple effects.
"In a warming world, there will be new opportunities and challenges in the global north. This work highlights how we much approach the idea of developing new farmland very cautiously and be extremely mindful of potential negative environmental impacts," explain the authors of the research.
Global modeling as means to understanding the future of agriculture
Scientists performed this study by conducting a global modeling analysis of factors related to climate change and how they relate to shifts in crop suitability. To do this, the team incorporated predictions of 17 global climate models to enable a vision of what different regions could look like in the future.
This allowed the researchers to better understand the environmental effects of different areas' suitability for certain crops. The crops that the scientists were interested in analyzing included corn, sugar and cotton.
After careful modeling, results suggest that while climate change will inevitably provide a larger amount of available land for agricultural use, utilizing these "frontiers" will lead to pollution and drops in biodiversity - adding to the harmful effects of climate change.
Consequences farmland has on climate change
What scientists also found was the the regions most likely to garner attention for potential new agricultural sites are mostly in upper latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere and that, in those regions, key crops could rise more than 30% in production.
One of the largest potential ramifications of taking advantage of this new land would involve releasing 177 gigatons more of carbon into the atmosphere. This, says the research, is equivalent to more than 100 years' worth of present-day carbon emissions in the U.S.
Such a move could rapidly accelerate global warming. The authors are, however, positive in their outlook on how their findings could impact future decisions in agriculture.
This knowledge could help shape efforts for farm management in new land by spreading awareness of the environmental consequences associated with harvesting in these areas. Further, it could tell us about how to benefit from new farmland while mitigating such risk.