Don’t feel like eating crops that have been genetically altered in a laboratory to produce more food? Think we have a moral obligation to stop others from eating such “unnatural” products around the world? Well, then you’d better get ready to expand the current amount of landmass used to grow food, because we’re going to need a hell of a lot of it. And a recent study from the University of Minnesota points to where we out to look.
There are a lot of factors to consider when choosing what land to turn to food production, and unfortunately, almost nobody cares to look at any of it. Governments and corporations everywhere are just haphazardly turning wilderness into farmland—a practice that spells trouble for global warming.
Plants store a lot of carbon. When you kill them off, that carbon gets released into the environment. Plus, they’re no longer alive to breath in carbon dioxide and further sequester existing carbon in the atmosphere. To mitigate this effect as much as possible, global agencies out to be looking to expand food production in areas that will release the least amount of carbon while producing the most about of consumable calories.
The new study led by Justin Andrew Johnson, an economist with the Natural Capital Project at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, did just that. Johnson analyzed high-resolution geospatial data from approximately 10 million locations around the world for 175 different crops in search of prospective croplands that produce the most calories relative to the amount of carbon stored, called the crop advantage.
The researchers valued the carbon storage potential of each area using the social cost of carbon, an estimate used in economics that monetizes the damages carbon contributes to the economy. The higher the crop advantage, the higher the calorie potential and the better the trade-off for lost carbon storage due to cultivation. If done right, the researchers estimate the world could save $1 trillion in climate change mitigation costs over “business as usual” growth.
So where should we grow food for India and China’s future population?
Areas with the highest crop advantage include the U.S. Corn Belt, parts of Western Europe, the Nile Valley, the Ganges River Plain and eastern China. Although these regions are already heavily farmed, the researchers found that expanding farmlands at the edges could produce more calories while limiting carbon loss relative to expansion in other parts of the world.
Parts of Eastern Europe, the Ukraine, Russia and several pockets in Southeast Asia also showed potential for agricultural expansion; tropical regions such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Southern India, parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Central America were found to have a low crop advantage. “There are high costs with developing agriculture in the tropics, and we need to consider them,” Johnson said.
Johnson did not, however, have any insight into how to get global governments to agree on something as mild as a preferred brand of toothpaste, much less who gets to dominate the future global agricultural economy.
So I’m guessing not a whole lot is going to come out of this one.
The study, “Global agriculture and carbon trade-offs,” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Johnson and colleagues Carlisle Ford Runge, Benjamin Senauer, Jonathan Foley, and Stephen Polasky.