The next 80 years could see two startling trends in agriculture: the number of global farms will fall precipitously to just half their present tally, but on average will grow in size, new research suggests. This raises questions about the consequences for biodiversity.
The findings, from a new Nature Sustainability paper, drew on an FAO dataset stretching from 1969 to 2013, which incorporates information about global agricultural area, GDP, and rural populations. Using the historic data, lead author Zia Mehrabi modeled farming trends into the future, up to 2100. For this he kept agricultural land area constant, but varied GDP and population numbers across the globe, according to several different socioeconomic scenarios that may unfold in the future.
The results revealed that when economies grow, national farm numbers typically decline as rural people migrate into cities, leaving behind a shrinking pool of people to manage large amounts of land. The natural response is to start consolidating smaller farms into fewer, larger ones, for ease and efficiency.
This trend has already started in wealthier nations like the United States and those in Europe, the study showed. Under the most likely future socioeconomic scenario, it’s expected to spread elsewhere to the Middle East, Latin America, Oceania and North Africa, followed by sub-Saharan Africa later in the century, as GDP rises in these regions.
This will gradually change the face of global agriculture by 2100, Mehrabi’s model predicts. Farm numbers worldwide will fall from 616 million (the number in 2020) to 272 million, more than halving by century-end. But on average, farm size will double.
As smaller parcels of land are scooped up into expanding farms, what does this mean for biodiversity? Small farms typically harbor more biodiversity, research has shown. Meanwhile, history shows us that larger swathes of farmland are usually less friendly to wildlife, reliant as they often are on industrial farming methods that focus on high outputs through uninterrupted monocultures, the use of heavy fertilizers, and toxic chemicals that ward off pests.
This substitution may therefore not be good news for biodiversity, “I’m not saying large farms are worse or small farms better. But if development trends continue we risk losing massive amounts of biodiversity currently in agricultural landscapes in the future, as farmland consolidates,” says Zia Mehrabi, a food systems scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder and author on the new paper.
This picture is complicated by another growing body of research which looks at the potential of farmland consolidation, if planned well, to conversely free up more space for wildlife at the landscape level. This follows the idea that bunching up farmland into specific, confined zones may actually leave behind larger continuous stretches of land, creating conditions that are crucial for biodiversity to truly thrive.
Managed strategically, farmland consolidation could create more room for biodiversity—“at the farming or food systems level if not at the farm level,” the researcher notes in his study. But that’s a big if.
And, there are also other consequences of consolidation beyond biodiversity to think about. A globally simplified farming system—both in terms of space and people—risks putting food production in the hands of just a few powerful corporate players, and relinquishing the diverse Indigenous and smallholder knowledge that has supported sustainable farming methods for millennia. Vast stretches of continuous farmland may reduce agriculture’s resilience to climate threats like drought or flooding, and make it vulnerable to attack by insects and disease which can swiftly rip through a single farm. This, in turn, can threaten food supply and sustainability.
These remain huge unknowns. But this study provides a valuable first glimpse at the likely future face of agriculture. This could help us anticipate these impacts and plan around them—perhaps especially when it comes to finding a place for biodiversity to thrive, in this shifting global landscape.
“We need policies to counter that loss and ensure that farms, of whatever size, foster biodiversity and connectivity across the world,” Mehrabi believes.
Mehrabi et. al. “Likely decline in the number of farms globally by the middle of the century.” Nature Sustainability. 2023.
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Updated 29 May 09;32 AM MST