Climate change is expanding the amount of land suitable for farming in colder regions. While farming such areas could offset declines in crop yields elsewhere, it would also pose a threat to wild places once protected from cultivation by the cold.
As the planet warms, researchers expect farmers will have to adapt to achieve crop yields sufficient to feed a growing global population. “I would say that’s inevitable,” says Alexandra Gardner at the University of Exeter in the UK.
That could mean farming different crops, planting at different times, using more irrigation and fertiliser or growing in different places. One study found that with very high fossil fuel emissions, the world’s bread baskets – regions responsible for producing a large proportion of our food – would need to shift toward the poles by around 600 kilometres before the end of the century to maintain current yields.
While that shift could help offset climate-related declines in yields nearer to the equator, it could also pose a threat to vast wilderness areas and the intact ecosystems they host.
Gardner and her colleagues modelled how climate change under different emissions scenarios would alter the areas appropriate for growing more than 1700 varieties of major crops, including potatoes, wheat and cotton. They then looked at where the newly suitable agricultural regions overlapped with “wilderness”, defined as large spaces free from human pressures.