The Seeds of Change: How Far Can Agriculture Extend?
Will Canadians run out of farmland one day? It seems like a silly question to ask in a country as large as ours-or, at least, silly until we realize that we're already running out. In fact, it's been happening for quite some time: since as early as the mid-1800s all of the good farmland in Ontario had been claimed, spurring the mass settlement of the West, where today one can drive for hours on end without passing an acre not under plow.
This is not just a national trend, but a global one-and it may be good cause for alarm. In just 300 years we've expanded agricultural lands fivefold. In fact, agriculture now covers nearly 40 per cent of the planet's surface-an enormous amount when you consider how much of the planet is covered by deserts, tundra, mountains and other areas unsuitable for cultivation.
As Canada Research Chair in Land-Use and Land-Cover Change, Dr. Navin Ramankutty is working to understand how humans have completely changed the face of Earth, and what those changes could mean for all of us. Ultimately, he wants to answer one pressing question: will our quest for food, water and other resources go so far that it turns around and bites us, threatening our ability to gather these resources in the future?
There is no denying that farming has many unintended effects: releasing greenhouse gasses, harming freshwater supplies, worsening air quality and accelerating the extinction of species. By modeling the future of agricultural land use, Ramankutty will help discover how far these negative effects will extend, and whether they may eventually threaten the global food supply.
Already, Ramankutty has developed detailed global maps that show the growth of agricultural lands over the past three centuries. This information is helpful when building mathematical models to understand how agriculture changes the climate, as well as freshwater resources and carbon cycling. These models can then predict what will happen in the future should the pace of agricultural development stay the same, or even intensify. Ramankutty's research will take into account such pressing issues as tropical deforestation, global irrigation and fertilizer use, global crop production systems, and global food security.
By understanding how agriculture affects everything from the water we drink to the air that we breath, Ramankutty's research will be highly useful to policy-makers who manage natural resources and deal with issues like climate change. It will let them see much further into the future, allowing them to confidently make choices that preserve the livelihood of Canadians today without threatening the country's long-term health and prosperity.