What if we started growing our food just below the Sahara Desert, and returned European croplands to forest again?
A new study determines that if we relocated global croplands to a set of confined locations around the planet where growing conditions could maximize yields—and then returned the remaining global cropland to the wild—we could cut the current carbon emissions of agriculture by a striking 71%. This game of agricultural Tetris would also bring about huge water savings, and significantly reduce agriculture’s biodiversity impact, the research showed.
This reconfigured agricultural map was derived from a mathematical model the researchers built, which weighed up agricultural productivity against environmental impacts around the planet. This helped the researchers identify hotspots where higher yields of several key crops could be produced, but crucially with lower impacts—requiring less water use, with limited impacts on biodiversity, and lower carbon emissions.
They also assumed that current diets would remain unchanged, and that farming would be input-intensive and mechanized to boost yields.
In a full-blown reconfiguration of global croplands, we would relocate soybean, maize, and rice crops to the Sahel region of sub-Saharan Africa; barley and wheat to the corn belt of the Midwestern United States; and rapeseed and soybeans to northern China, for instance. The temperatures, soil conditions and natural rainfall in these zones would encourage higher yields from these crops than they were producing in other less productive areas.
With this ambitious global redesign, we’d be able to grow the same amount of food—but using almost half the land we currently do because of the higher yields. Meanwhile, the more efficient production and the land savings it would entail would reduce agriculture’s current carbon footprint by 71%—the equivalent of erasing 20 years-worth of emissions. It would also cut agriculture’s biodiversity impact by 87%, and eliminate the need for irrigation because the new cropland areas occur on lands that are naturally irrigated by rain.
The researchers recognize however that this global reshuffle of farmland will be an almost impossible feat in the near-term, and so they explored other more realistic scenarios too. For instance, if instead of reconfiguring farmland access the globe, all countries optimized the distribution of croplands just within their own borders, it would still bring down agriculture’s carbon emissions by 59%, and reduce biodiversity impact by 77%. Also, almost 100% of crops relocated within national borders could still exist on rainwater alone.
Even less ambitiously, if we relocated just 15% of all crops to more appropriate locations globally, or a quarter of crops within national borders, either one of those would still achieve half the emissions reductions and biodiversity benefits of a full-scale global reshuffle.
The model also suggests that yield benefits of relocation would remain the same, even under the projected climate scenarios at the end of the century.
The agricultural intensification that this relocation model requires in order to work is a contentious idea, with many detractors—primarily because of the high chemical inputs that it typically requires, and the associated emissions, pollution, and soil degradation.
But with agriculture now covering almost 40% percent of the globe, the trade-off is that this more efficient system of food production could leave almost half of that to be rewilded, the researchers say—an opportunity to lock away tons of carbon, and shore up biodiversity.
“If we let these places regenerate, and moved production to better suited areas, we would see environmental benefits very quickly,” they explain. Plus, intensification doesn’t have to do severe environmental harm: there are ways to increase yields more sustainably, which could be encouraged through subsidies to support farmers in making the transition.
In the meantime, relatively modest changes could still be transformative for the planet, the results suggest. “Even if we only relocated a fraction of the world’s cropland, focusing on the places that are least efficient for growing crops, the environmental benefits would be tremendous.”
Beyer et. al. “Relocating croplands could drastically reduce the environmental impacts of global food production.” Nature Communications Earth & Environment. 2022.
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