New agricultural frontiers: Is the grass really greener in a warming world?

Two farmers man and woman work in a wheat field at sunset. Image credit: Adobe Stock

Julia French, a postgraduate student on the MSc in Climate Change, Management & Finance with the Grantham Institute and Imperial College Business School, discusses one of the lesser-known ‘positive’ impacts of climate change and explores what it means for our future society and way of life.

By now, we have all become accustomed to the hellish predictions of what our world will look like under a warmer climate. Heatwaves will intensify and become more common, such as the heatwave in North America which made 150 times more likely due to climate change. Droughts will follow, putting stress on water supplies and causing harvests to fail. But, as they say, when one door closes another one opens, and the same can be said of climate change.

Yes, rising temperatures will likely push already hot regions, such as Northern Africa and Australia, over the edge in terms of their ability to grow a successful harvest. But areas that are currently too cold to grow your average soybean (economically the most important bean in the world) will also get warmer. This will extend the countries growing seasons, meaning they will become suitable for a range of the world’s top crops. These areas have been dubbed ‘climate-driven agricultural frontiers’. A recent study found that these frontiers could equate to 30% of the land we currently have under our pitch forks (see map below), or as much as 93% in the highest warming scenario by the end of the century.

So, jump aboard the nearest tractor and let’s see what to expect from our future voyage to new lands…

Figure 1. Map of climate-driven agricultural frontiers expected by 2080 under a 2.6-4.8°C warming scenario. Coloured regions are currently not suitable for any crops but will become suitable for one or more according to the key above. Source: Hanna, et al, 2020.

One potato, two potato, three potato…

By 2050, global food production will need to increase by 56% at least in order to accommodate the estimated 2.5 billion extra people and their more calorific, meat-heavy diets. On top of this, we are already witnessing examples of crop failure from extreme weather events and this will only get worse. Developing the frontiers will help to compensate for these critical losses and could alleviate the growing pressure on our food systems. That said, not everything is directly replaceable. Potato, wheat and maize will be the most suitable new inhabitants of the frontiers, meaning other important crops like rice, which is the staple food of nearly half the world’s population, will continue to struggle.

A new world order

The scale of these changes mean that trade flows of major food products could change dramatically. Fossil fuel is the top export of both Canada and Russia. By 2050, and certainly 2080, the hope is that these products will not be in high demand. Cultivating their frontier lands could allow them to move away from this industry and become the bread baskets of the world in the process.

At the same time, population growth is likely to be concentrated far away in developing nations such as Nigeria and India. These countries are more vulnerable to climate change and stand to lose more from its impact on agriculture than industrialised nations. Weave these two trends together and global supply and demand could grow worryingly out of balance. Food supply chains would become unrecognisable, not to mention the tensions that could rise over dwindling harvests in some countries, while others are improving.

Ancient homelands

That is not to say that these newly suitable soils are devoid of people. Rather, they are home to many Indigenous peoples such as the First Nations in Canada who still retain ownership of those lands, as opposed to the government or crown. These communities must be the ones to decide on any development plans. The governance of such areas becomes more complicated when the national interest is not the only thing to contend with. China and Korea have already started to lease land in Siberia for agriculture, and their demand for food from other nations is likely to continue to grow

… MORE climate change 

Change in land use on this scale also brings its environmental problems. In the case of agricultural frontiers, the top level of soil in the northern latitudes is unique: it is extremely carbon rich. As this soil warms it releases carbon, of which there is an estimated 632 gigatons of carbon trapped within. But if we were to cultivate it as well it would release even more: the equivalent of “over a century of current United States carbon dioxide emissions”, according to researchers. At that point our hopes of limiting warming to 1.5°C or even 2°C above pre-industrial levels (before the industrial revolution in ~1850), as per the Paris Agreement, would be lost like a needle in a haystack.

The final frontier?

These frontiers offer us obvious opportunities – feed the world’s future hungry anyone? But dig deeper and you start to find some all-too-familiar warning signs that suggest we should ‘go no further’. Despite these warning signs, we should not underestimate the pressure governments will face to open up these unique landscapes and reap the rewards. It has already begun in some places. Our window of opportunity to set up strong legal protections and ensure sound land management practices begins now.

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