Not sure you’ve heard, but the planet is getting hotter. The heat is making farming harder in some places, but it’s also making it possible to bring agriculture into new areas. Farmers are growing food in northern Alberta, Canada. Russia plans to “use the advantages” of global warming to expand its agriculture northward. And by 2030, New England could have three times as much farmland as it does now. Finally, some good news!
Except maybe not. New research shows that expanding agriculture northward could screw up the environment and unleash a flood of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, worsening the climate crisis. The new study published in PLOS One on Wednesday shows that disturbing soils on new northern farmland could release 177 gigatons of carbon. That’s equivalent to more than a century’s worth of present-day carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S.
“This work highlights how we must approach the idea of developing new farmland very cautiously and be extremely mindful of potential negative environmental impacts,” the authors wrote.
The researchers used projections from 17 global climate models and found that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate, global temperatures could rise by 4.8 degrees Celsius (8.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. That would open up as much as 9.3 million square miles of arable land in the northern part of the world as well as high altitude areas by 2080. Those new areas could support important food crops, including wheat, corn and soy. Yes, the findings are based on the upper end of carbon emissions scenarios, but even lower emissions scenarios will still warm the planet and create millions of acres of new potential farmland.
Farming isn’t inherently bad. After all, people need to eat. And if the world’s population grows to 10 billion by 2050, the world will need to produce 70 percent more food. The problem is how we farm. Soil traps carbon from the atmosphere, and when it’s turned over to create new farmland, some of that carbon gets released. That effect at a large scale, the researchers worry, could trigger runaway climate change.
To make matters worse, farming new frontiers could also pose problems for biodiversity, especially in tropical mountain regions that are newly warm enough to support agriculture. The predicted new farming frontiers cover some of the world’s most biodiverse regions and critical bird habitats. Agriculture that relies on fertilizer and fossil fuel-powered equipment also releases toxic byproducts into the local environment that can trickle downstream (see the Gulf of Mexico dead zone for a prime example of how had it can get). Farming higher in the mountains could pollute drinking water that more than 1.8 billion people rely on.
These effects are all bad on their own, but the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, and water pollution can compound the stress of each even further. Another recent study showed that these threats “have the potential to impact and amplify one another in ways that might cascade to create global systemic collapse.”
There are policies that could mitigate these effects, such as making sure that the world’s most carbon-rich soil is off limits, and reforesting the areas that are no longer suitable for agriculture. And since all the potential farmland the researchers identified isn’t ready to farm yet, the time to create those policies is now, before there’s money to be made off those new frontiers and things go full Wild West.