Global Satellite Data IDs Tensions Between Food Production, Biodiversity

May 4, 2022

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Africa is seeing the fastest cropland expansion, eating into rainforest and dry forests/savanna alike. Above, deforested land in Burundi. Photo: Jane Boles, Flickr Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Feature: Global Satellite Data IDs Tensions Between Food Production, Biodiversity

By Gabriel Popkin

Anyone who’s paying attention knows by now that the loss of natural ecosystems like forests and grasslands is a major problem. But we often hear less about what’s taking the place of those wild habitats. Recent research has shed some light on that question, revealing that much of the substitution over the past two decades came from corn, soybeans and other agricultural crops.

I caught wind of the story thanks to a social media post by the University of Maryland’s Global Land Analysis and Discovery group. I first learned about the GLAD lab when I wrote about satellite-based deforestation alerts that they were piloting in 2016 — a capability that has now become routine.

While you may not have heard of the lab, you have probably seen their data in the form of Global Forest Watch or the World Resources Institute’s deforestation estimates, which make headlines annually. The lab has pioneered algorithms that crunch huge quantities of satellite data to tell stories about how the world’s land surface is changing, and they put out a steady stream of interesting papers, several of which I have covered.

When I heard about the GLAD lab’s latest study on the global boom in cropland area, I thought it offered an interesting new way to look at land-use change at the global scale. I was also primed to pay attention to cropland expansion because I had written a story a few months earlier about crops displacing native grasslands (subscription required) in the United States. I pitched a report on the new paper to Science and the resulting news story was published near the end of December.


One big global farm

The top-line result of that study — that new crop fields have taken over an area the size of Texas and California combined since the start of the 21st century — is alarming, given how much the human footprint was already putting the squeeze on nature. Basically, the world is rapidly becoming one global farm.


Few crop fields are directly replacing Amazon

rainforest. … Rather, in South America, new

soybean fields often go into cattle pastures

that were carved out of the forest in the past.


When we look at where these new crop fields are, our eyes are drawn to different places than if we focus on where trees are falling. For example, few crop fields are directly replacing Amazon rainforest, the place probably most associated with deforestation in the public mind. Rather, in South America, new soybean fields often go into cattle pastures that were carved out of the forest in the past.

New crop fields are also encroaching on the Gran Chaco and the Cerrado, two massive, biodiversity-rich natural ecosystems that are drier than the Amazon and get far less public attention. These soybeans are not grown to feed South Americans directly; many of them are instead turned into feed for animals in Europe and Asia.

Cropland can also shrink. In recent years, the greatest cropland contraction has occurred in the former USSR, where farmers cultivated poor, marginal land under the centralized Soviet system. In a market-based system, it simply doesn’t make sense to farm much of this area, and many former fields are now returning to forest.

At the continental scale, the fastest cropland expansion is happening in Africa, eating into both the rainforests of central Africa and the dry forests and savannas that cover much of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. But it’s a different flavor of expansion. Rather than growing commodities for the global market, these farms are largely producing food for Africans.


Africa’s cropland boom, a major emerging environmental story

All three of these insights — how crops are carving into dry forests and grasslands, how forests are taking over abandoned farmland in parts of the world and how Africa is leading the cropland boom — are ripe for further exploration by environmental journalists. The third in particular strikes me as one of the biggest emerging environmental stories anywhere on Earth.

Africa is by far the fastest-growing continent; its population is projected to roughly double by 2050. All those people will need to eat, and as they get richer, they will likely want the more meat-rich diets that the rest of the world has gotten used to.

Meanwhile, sub-Saharan Africa lacks many of our modern agricultural technologies and has by far the world’s lowest crop yields. It takes an African farmer roughly three times as much land as the global average to produce a bushel of corn, for example, and five times as much land as a U.S. farmer.


Whether African agriculture can keep up with

population growth and climate change is one of the

biggest human well-being and environmental stories

of our time, with implications for the entire world.


That means far more land must be cultivated, putting pressure on forests and other natural ecosystems. On top of that, climate change is forecast to hurt African farmers more than those on any other continent.

Whether African agriculture can keep up with population growth and climate change is one of the biggest human well-being and environmental stories of our time, with implications for the entire world. It will determine, obviously, how Africans eat, but also whether they can conserve the continent’s tremendous remaining biodiversity and one of the world’s last major intact forests — the rainforest of the Congo Basin.


Illuminating the tensions between food production and sustainability

It’s a complicated story because the solution is probably not to replace the current smallholder system, in which hundreds of millions of people farm small acreages, with American-style industrial agriculture, which comes with massive human displacement and sustainability issues.

Rather, the question as I see it is, can Africa fuse the best of both systems into a new kind of technologically enhanced yet human-centered, sustainable and climate-resilient agriculture? And of course Africa is not a monolithic place but a vast, diverse patchwork of countries and cultures, each with its own particular agricultural traditions and challenges.

There have been good stories written on this topic, such as this National Geographic feature, but on the whole it has received little coverage in American media (I can’t speak for the rest of the world), given its enormous importance.

I would love to see more stories illuminating the tensions between food production and sustainability, and featuring African-led agricultural innovations and productive international partnerships aimed at the critical goal of increasing crop yields to relieve some of the pressure being placed on the continent’s remaining natural ecosystems.

I’m interested in expanding my own reporting into this area, but it’s admittedly daunting. I’ve never been to Africa and have few sources and little background besides the 30,000-foot view I’ve gained from papers such as the one I covered here. It would require a major investment of time and travel, probably funded by a grant or fellowship. I welcome any leads but hope you’ll follow your own.

Gabriel Popkin is a freelance science and environmental writer in the Washington, D.C. area. He writes widely about land, climate, forests, biodiversity and other topics for outlets such as Science, the New York Times, Washington Post and many others. He has been a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists since 2014.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 18. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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