Agriculture’s Growing Footprint Could Threaten 17,000 Species With Habitat Loss

New research projects 1.3 million square miles of habitat will be converted to croplands by 2050

 Illegal occupation of Brazilian Amazon Government land with livestock
Some 1,280 of these species will lose a quarter or more of their remaining habitat and 350 are projected to lose more than half of the areas they currently call home. Photo by Ricardo Funari/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images

A new study projects that if current trends continue, land clearing for agriculture will eat away at the habitats of nearly 90 percent of land animals by 2050, reports Matthew Taylor for the Guardian.

Humans have appropriated more than three-quarters of Earth’s lands for our own endeavors. According to research published in 2016, that leaves just 11.6 of the planet’s 57.3 million square miles of land to house the wealth of global biodiversity.

The researchers behind the new report, published last week in the journal Nature Sustainability, say that unless the world’s systems of food production undergo massive transformation, nature is poised to lose an estimated 1.3 million square miles to agriculture by mid-century. The paper estimates that the conversion of these ecosystems to cropland will further shrink the habitats of more than 17,000 species of land vertebrates, reports Jonathan Lambert for Science News.

Some 1,280 of these species will lose a quarter or more of their remaining habitat and 350 are projected to lose more than half of the areas they currently call home. Based on their analysis, the researchers expect the most significant losses of habitat to occur in sub-Saharan Africa as well as South and Southeast Asia, reports Karina Shah for New Scientist.

In a statement, David Williams, a conservation scientist at the University of Leeds and a lead author of the paper, explains that he and his co-authors estimated the expansion of agriculture over the next three decades by forecasting the demands of a global population that is growing in both size and affluence.

The team’s model mapped the distribution of those changes in land use across the globe at a resolution of roughly one square mile (1.5 square kilometers) and overlaid those estimates with the habitats of nearly 20,000 species of mammals, birds and amphibians, per Science News.

“Ultimately, we need to change what we eat and how it is produced if we’re going to save wildlife on a global scale,” says Williams in the statement. “We need to alter both our diets and food production methods.”

The researchers say improving crop yields, shifting towards more plant-based diets, cutting food waste or loss by half and importing more food to countries with the greatest numbers of species threatened by encroaching croplands could actually reduce the footprint of global agriculture by around 1.3 million square miles by 2050. All four strategies could facilitate the restoration of roughly the same area the researchers project Earth will lose to food production in a “business as usual scenario” during the same time span.

“We need to do all of these things,” says Michael Clark, a food systems researcher at the University of Oxford and one of the study’s lead authors, in the statement. “No one approach is sufficient on its own. But with global coordination and rapid action, it should be possible to provide healthy diets for the global population in 2050 without major habitat losses.”

In the statement, Clark notes that enacting all these strategies at once is vital because their impacts are unlikely to be evenly distributed. For example, reduced meat consumption would reduce the need for land conversion in North America, but would have less of an impact in parts of the world where meat consumption is low. By contrast, the biggest benefits for sub-Saharan Africa’s ecosystems would likely come from increasing crop yields.

Clark says that traditional efforts to save species by establishing new protected areas are essential to preserving Earth’s biodiversity, but that his team’s research seeks to underscore the importance of addressing the forces driving the destruction of habitat head on.

Making these changes would be no small feat, but the point, as Williams tells Science News, is that our species is more than capable of “feed[ing] the planet without screwing it up too badly.”