Frontiers: will humanity’s appetite leave land for nature?

Peak Cropland

Feeding the world’s growing population is shaping up to be the challenge of the century, but where does conservation fit into the equation?

Joe Fargione, senior director for The Nature Conservancy – North America Region, attempted to answer just that in last Wednesday’s Frontiers in the Environment presentation, “Peak Cropland: Saving Room for Nature While Feeding Humanity this Century.”

Throughout the presentation, Fargione discussed the balance between fertility rates and food consumption in driving cropland demands.

“I’ve chosen to dedicate my life to working on conservation and I want to know, am I just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?” Fargione said. “Is it inevitable that the human population will expand so that it completely overruns nature no matter what conservationists do, and I’m just wasting my time?”

Those were the questions guiding Fargione’s research, but his findings weren’t quite as bleak. In fact, he found that lower fertility rates in developed nations and opportunities to improve crop yields mean cropland could peak in the next several decades. This means more land could remain in critical ecosystems, like tropical rainforests, and less land would be converted to agriculture.

Driving the declining fertility rates in wealthier nations is urbanization, greater access to contraception and education for girls beginning at a younger age. Meanwhile, the Green Revolution has been improving agricultural yields for decades and continues to do so. Conservation groups like The Nature Conservancy need to use all of these forces if they want to make peak cropland a reality.

Conservationists should be forming partnerships with folks working on increasing sustainable agriculture yield and with those who are working to reduce birthrates by educating girls, Fargione said.

Fargione is quick to point out that reaching peak cropland is not the end of the story; rainforest and other habitat that isn’t cleared for agriculture isn’t automatically protected. But he is optimistic that his research suggests conservation and feeding the world don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

“I’m encouraged by this because my conclusion is that there is room for both people and nature,” he said. “So when we’re setting aside land for nature, the argument that people need that land to feed themselves, for basic subsistence, I don’t think is true. We have room for both.”
Watch Fargione’s full presentation online.

John Sisser is a communications assistant with the Institute on the Environment.