It’s often seen as the silver lining set against the dark clouds of climate change: As precipitation patterns change and cold parts of the planet warm up, the quantity of potential farmland could grow immensely.
In just the last decade, for example, farmers in northern Alberta, Canada, have started to produce corn in areas where the growing season had long been too short to do so. The wine industry has been expanding successfully into England, Norway, and other parts of Northern Europe. Meanwhile, Russia and its neighbors have seen growth in the land available for wheat, barley, and other grain production.
These types of changes are often framed as good news for the regions and economies involved, at least in the short term. But they could also push the frontiers of agricultural land into wild, “natural” areas, forcing us to consider the consequences of plowing up land that has for thousands of years had other equally important—if less visible—purposes.
A study published today in PLOS ONE maps the agricultural potential of these regions. The authors—who hail from seven institutions, including Conservation International, the U.N. Environment World Conservation Monitoring Center, as well as a handful of universities—studied the growing range for 12 crops and identified frontier areas that will likely become hospitable to cool weather crops such as corn, soybeans, and potatoes by the end of the century. The land in question spans 6 to 15 million square miles—the equivalent of about 30 percent of the farmland currently being cultivated on the planet—and much of it is currently covered by forests, bogs, and wetlands.
The researchers did not look at factors such as soil quality, terrain, and development, so their data represents the upper limits of what’s possible, not a prediction or promotion of farming that much more land. But in modeling the full picture of these frontiers, they had a larger goal: to create a picture of the potential impact on biodiversity, water quality, and—here’s the bitter irony—the release of more planet-warming carbon from the soil into the atmosphere.
According to the study, these frontier soils contain up to 177 gigatons of carbon, or “the equivalent of over a century of current United States CO2 emissions”—and much of that could be released relatively quickly. “The release of carbon following tilling from previously untilled soils is believed to occur rapidly, and estimates suggest that 25–40 percent of total soil carbon is released within five years of plowing,” the authors write.
The fact that many of the potentially affected soils are peat also poses risk of even greater climate emissions. Peat provides deep carbon storage, and releases sizable quantities of CO2 when it degrades.
Farming this land—which is mainly located in Canada and Russia—would also impact watersheds serving over 1.8 billion people, say the researchers. The people and fisheries downstream of this new farmland would likely feel the impacts of more fertilizers (and their potential to lead to dead zones and algae growth) and pesticides in the water. The area discussed also overlaps with 19 of the 36 currently recognized global biodiversity hotspots—many of them home to unique and endangered species of birds and other wildlife, on top of a rich array of endemic plants.
Patrick Roehrdanz, a researcher working for Conservation International and U.C. Santa Barbara’s school of Environmental Science Management and one of the study’s co-authors, says he and his colleagues decided to map out agricultural frontiers as part of a larger project geared toward predicting where tropical species will relocate as the climate changes as a way to prioritize conservation efforts. They’ve found that most tropical species will move upslope—and that rule generally applies to agriculture as well.
“We went through the process of modeling where these commodity crops would be suitable [for farming], both now and in the future,” Roehrdanz told Civil Eats. “Some of that happens in the tropics. But once we mapped it out globally, we were like, ‘Whoa, there’s a whole bunch going on in the high latitudes.’ We kind of knew that would be the case, but just seeing the scale of how much land might be climatically suitable for agriculture by late century was eye-opening.”
And while most of this land may be seen as off-limits to developers and agribusiness now, that could change quickly.
“Until a few years ago, people hadn’t thought of the Brazilian forest as possible farmland, but the reality is much of the forest has already been converted to soy farms,” said study co-author Krishna Bahadur K.C., of the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.
The study also points to the fact that, for many years, Southeast Asian peat hadn’t been cut down for palm oil production because “the fragile tropical soils were deemed unsuitable and the areas were considered too remote. Yet land use conversion happened in a very short period of time driven by rising demand and low land prices.”
In Canada, Bahadur K.C. says, there’s the potential to more than double the current amount of land in ag production. And that’s reason to start thinking about what the agriculture itself—and the policies that surround it—should look like. Identifying areas that store more or less carbon, particularly in the Boreal forest, which sits atop enormous quantities of carbon, is worth doing as soon as possible, he says.
The way the land is farmed is also an important factor, the study acknowledges. For starters, it recommends “policies that incentivize leaving peat soils intact and promoting conservation tillage.”
Professor Bahadur K.C. says practices that sequester more carbon, cut down on food waste, and use innovative technology can all make a difference when it comes to using the land efficiently and reducing dependence on the areas that are most vulnerable. “We have to find carbon-neutral solutions, as much as possible,” he adds.
Roehrdanz agrees that “there are ways to install agriculture that are more or less impactful in terms of the carbon released.” But, in the end, he adds, farming previously undeveloped land “would just be wholesale land use change. So that would be significant.”
The study’s authors also acknowledge that a great many Indigenous communities call the areas in question home and have ancestral claims to the land.
“We’re not advocating that these areas be developed—actually quite the opposite in most cases,” says Roehrdanz. “But there’s a need to take into account the Indigenous and historical uses that are present in these areas, especially when crafting development policies. “
Jonathan Foley, executive director of Project Drawdown, a nonprofit organization that reviews, analyses, and identifies global climate solutions, said the questions the study poses are important. But he adds that it might be a purely intellectual exercise, as the ability to farm in areas closer to the poles may not result in an agricultural shift of any real significance.
“The last major push of cropland and pasture expansion in northern countries mainly ended a century or more ago, and I think it’s unlikely to return in a big way,” says Foley. “Instead, I think we will see significant changes in the crop varieties and farming systems we have on current agricultural lands, and less clearing of new land in response to climate. But this is all speculation on my part; nobody knows for sure.”
No matter what, Foley adds, the research should act as a reminder, “that changes in where we farm—especially if we clear any additional lands in response to shifting climate conditions—can have important environmental implications.”
Marcia DeLonge, senior scientist in the Food & Environment Program at the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists, called the study rigorous and important, adding that it “begins to put numbers on some of the concerns and tradeoffs that climate and agricultural scientists have been raising for years.”
“In the U.S. and around the world, there’s been growing momentum around the need for a more sustainable agriculture and a focus on building healthier soils,” added DeLonge. “With a broad perspective of global risk, these efforts to restore soil health, water quality, biodiversity, and resilience in areas that have already been degraded, as well as to invest in advancing sustainable agriculture practices in general, seem all the more urgent and important.”
It’s also important to note that the mapping done for this study is based on current consumption patterns—namely the production of vast amounts of commodity crops to feed animals, which requires significantly more land resources than plant-based diets. While mapping that takes into account that variable “gets very complicated very fast,” Roehrdanz says, both researchers Civil Eats spoke to acknowledged that the future of global meat and dairy consumption is a variable worth keeping in mind.
“Switching towards plant-based consumption is definitely a good idea. That’s definitely one of the biggest ways to reduce carbon footprint, water footprints, the footprint of agriculture,” said Roehrdanz. “If everybody eats a U.S. diet, it’s not sustainable.”