Will new supercrops feed the world and help save nature?

We live in a hungry world -- and one that will soon grow much hungrier.  Global food demand is expected to double by mid-century because of rapid population growth and changing food habits.  Producing that much food could require a billion hectares of additional farmland -- an area the size of Canada.

But if we develop new high-yielding 'supercrops' and farm them intensively, could we feed the world with less land and thereby spare some land for nature?  Many have argued in favor of this idea.

A tsunami of oil palm  (photo by William Laurance)

A tsunami of oil palm (photo by William Laurance)

But a new study published in the leading journal Science suggests the opposite: supercrops will actually encourage more habitat destruction for agriculture, especially in the species-rich tropics.

The authors argue that new varieties of palm oil, which are highly productive and profitable but grow only in the tropics, are simply going to keep spreading apace.  That's because there's so many different uses for palm oil, including for many food items, cosmetics, and biofuels, that demand for it will remain high.  

And, as palm-oil production rises, its price will likely fall, meaning that it will increasingly out-compete other oil-producing crops, such as canola (rapeseed), sesame seeds, and peanuts.

This, the authors say, will simply shift the footprint of agriculture from areas such as North America and Europe to mega-diversity regions such as the tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

What's the answer to the tsunami of oil palm and other profitable tropical crops?  There really is only one alternative: we need proactive land-use zoning to determine where agriculture should and should not go -- to ensure it doesn't just overrun nature.  And we need better law enforcement to reduce illegal deforestation.

And we direly need to limit the explosive expansion of roads into wilderness and high-biodiversity areas.  By 2050, it's expected that we'll have an additional 25 million kilometers of new paved roads -- with nine-tenths of these in developing nations that sustain many of the world's biologically richest ecosystems.

There really is no other option.  Supercrops may help feed a hungry world, but if they're not constrained they will destroy much of nature in the process.

 

Momentous changes ahead for the tropics

The world's tropical regions will be the epicenter of change in global economies, population growth, and environment.  That's the take-home message of a groundbreaking report that forecasts massive changes this century in the tropics.

Huge changes ahead...  (from Mongabay)

Huge changes ahead... (from Mongabay)

The ambitious State of the Tropics Report was launched last week in Burma and Singapore, in a special televised event. 

The report was kicked off by Nobel Laureate and Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi with assistance from Sandra Harding, the Vice-Chancellor of James Cook University in Australia, and a panel of experts that included ALERT director Bill Laurance

Produced by a coalition of 12 universities and research institutes from the Asia-Pacific, Africa, and Latin America, the State of the Tropics report sees dramatic changes ahead for the world's tropical regions:

- by the latter part of this century, the population of tropical nations will swell by over 3 billion additional people, with Africa's population nearly quadrupling

- food demand in tropical and developing nations will double by mid-century

- by 2050, two-thirds of all children will live in the tropics

- land-use pressures will intensify sharply because of a dire need to increase food and biofuel production in the tropics

- as the century unfolds, tropical nations will increasingly be the centers of global economic growth and also rising geopolitical conflicts over land, water, and natural resources

- the tropics sustains 80% of all species, many of which will be imperiled by rising habitat loss, climate change, and other perils.

The State of the Tropics report is the first comprehensive effort to project change across the entire tropical region -- which will increasingly become a key driver of social, economic, and environmental change globally.

 

Agriculture will massively impact the tropics

In a review article that has just appeared in the leading journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution, I teamed up with Jeff Sayer and Ken Cassman to assess the impacts of agriculture this century on tropical ecosystems and biodiversity.  It's quite a sweeping review with many important conclusions.

Oil palm: highly profitable and often deadly for tropical forests (photo by Niels Anten).

Oil palm: highly profitable and often deadly for tropical forests (photo by Niels Anten).

Among the biggest concerns are:

- Prospects for dramatic expansion of agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa and South America

- Great uncertainty in the amount of land that will be converted to agriculture, in order to meet growing global food demands

-The prospects that biofuel production could also impact greatly on native ecosystems and also compete with agriculture

- The likelihood of massive environmental impacts on freshwater ecosystems and water supplies

- Profound challenges ahead in producing enough food to feed the world

Those who wish to have a PDF of the paper can email me directly (bill.laurance@jcu.edu.au).

-Bill Laurance