As the international community focuses on climate change as the great crisis of our era, it is ignoring another looming problem: the global crisis in land use.
It’s taken a long time, but the issue of global climate change is finally getting the attention it deserves. While enormous technical, policy, and economic issues remain to be solved, there is now widespread acceptance of the need to confront the twin challenges of energy security and climate change. Collectively, we are beginning to acknowledge that our long addiction to fossil fuels—which has been harming our national security, our economy and our environment for decades—must end. The question today is no longer why, but how. The die is cast, and our relationship to energy will never be the same.
Unfortunately, this positive shift in the national zeitgeist has had an unintended downside. In the rush to portray the perils of climate change, many other serious issues have been largely ignored. Climate change has become the poster child of environmental crises, complete with its own celebrities and campaigners. But is it so serious that we can afford to overlook the rise of infectious disease, the collapse of fisheries, the ongoing loss of forests and biodiversity, and the depletion of global water supplies?
Although I’m a climate scientist by training, I worry about this collective fixation on global warming as the mother of all environmental problems. Learning from the research my colleagues and I have done over the past decade, I fear we are neglecting another, equally inconvenient truth: that we now face a global crisis in land use and agriculture that could undermine the health, security, and sustainability of our civilization.
Our use of land, particularly for agriculture, is absolutely essential to the success of the human race. We depend on agriculture to supply us with food, feed, fiber, and, increasingly, biofuels. Without a highly efficient, productive, and resilient agricultural system, our society would collapse almost overnight.
But we are demanding more and more from our global agricultural systems, pushing them to their very limits. Continued population growth (adding more than 70 million people to the world every year), changing dietary preferences (including more meat and dairy consumption), rising energy prices, and increasing needs for bioenergy sources are putting tremendous pressure on the world’s resources. And, if we want any hope of keeping up with these demands, we’ll need to double, perhaps triple, the agricultural production of the planet in the next 30 to 40 years.
Meeting these huge new agricultural demands will be one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. At present, it is completely unclear how (and if) we can do it.
If this wasn’t enough, we must also address the massive environmental impacts of our current agricultural practices, which new evidence indicates rival the impacts of climate change. Consider the following:
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