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High-latitude wilderness will become a target for agriculture

Expanding crop farming worldwide is emerging as the leading cause for the loss of biodiversity in the wilderness.

A new study published in the journal Current Biology has revealed the transformations that may be witnessed in the global agricultural landscape over the next four decades.

The researchers analyzed data from 1,708 crops in a database established by the Food and Agricultural Organization. They predict a significant shift in farming regions due to global warming. 

Suitable land for farming

As temperatures rise, high-latitude areas closer to the poles could become prime locations for agricultural activities, potentially threatening the vast wilderness across these regions.

“We expected that warming temperatures would increase agricultural suitability at high latitudes, but the scale of this result, and the extent to which this newly suitable land is in wilderness, was surprising: 76% of newly suitable land at high latitudes is currently wilderness, equivalent to 10% of the total wilderness in these areas,” said study lead author Alexandra Gardner of the University of Exeter.

For now, most global crop cultivation is concentrated in regions closer to the equator. Yet, these areas are already suffering wilderness loss due to expanding agriculture. 

Agricultural pursuits 

Looking ahead, the team predicts a worrisome future where around 72% of currently agriculturally viable land may experience a significant dip in biodiversity. This is because, as high-latitude regions get warmer, they are becoming more ideal for farming.

Shocking data indicates that since the early 1990s, a whopping 3.3 million square kilometers of wilderness, almost double the size of Alaska, have been lost to agricultural pursuits. 

The creation of numerous protected areas over the years has not been adequate to counterbalance the immense pressure exerted by agriculture on natural habitats.

Minimizing the impacts

“We need to understand the specific impacts of different agricultural practices on biodiversity,” said Gardner. “An important step is knowing how we can maintain or improve crop yields on existing agricultural land using sustainable practices that do not harm or minimize the negative impacts on natural biodiversity.” 

Gardner and colleagues say that a good way to do this is to promote manmade biodiversity by growing a variety of crops that have been tailored to the natural environment on a single farm. 

This type of practice could be integrated with the environment without hampering native wildlife, and could also act as a safeguard against the threats of climate change.

Study implications 

The researchers noted in their paper that strategy and policy must evolve alongside agriculture. 

“This is never going to be successful unless you bring the farmers into the decision-making process,” said Ilya Maclean of the University of Exeter. 

“What we’ve seen over the last 50 years is a shift toward extensive large fields and monocultures. It’s much cheaper for a farmer to produce crops that way. But if you grow a single crop on your farm, you’re more susceptible to the uncertainties of climate change.” 

“What we’ll be seeing is parts of the last untouched places on the planet becoming more suited for agriculture.”

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