Agriculture represents the single largest human use of land and water. Therefore, it has a greater potential impact on our planet than any other human endeavor.
At the same time, agriculture is one of the first things to be affected by changes in our environment. Rising temperatures, extreme weather, drought—these are only three of the many issues agriculture must deal with in order to feed mankind. Quite simply, if you care about the environment, you have to care about agriculture. And vice versa.
Our biggest environmental footprint
By some estimates, agriculture currently uses 60% of the arable land on planet Earth. It also uses 70% of our fresh water.
There are different opinions about how agriculture can meet the needs of a growing population. However, one thing is clear: if we have to double our food production in the next few decades, we’ll have to get more efficient—it’s mathematically impossible to double the amount of land and water we already use.
Agriculture and climate change
As a society, we’re just beginning to feel the impacts of climate change. Some effects of agriculture—such as the greenhouse gases produced by farm machinery and the production of fertilizer—are contributing factors. And of course, agriculture itself can suffer from the effects of climate change. Agriculture needs to adapt to changing conditions and use farming techniques that reduce the impact of our changing climate.
In addition to rising global temperatures, erratic precipitation patterns—too much in some areas, not enough in others—are causing new challenges for farmers. Due to glacial melting, some areas have lost, or are in danger of losing, their supply of freshwater for irrigation.
Deforestation and biodiversity
Another complexity in the agricultural and environmental cycle is the role of deforestation.
A leading cause of deforestation is the need to clear new land for cattle grazing and crop production. In many parts of the world, this deforestation is happening in areas that are rich in biodiversity, such as rainforests.
Not only does this put additional pressure on important plant and animal species, the elimination of thousands of acres of trees also reduces the ability of the Earth to trap carbon. More carbon in the atmosphere can intensify the effects of climate change, increasing the potential negative effects on crop production.
A complicated cycle
The relationship between agriculture and climate change is complex. Just as agriculture is searching for ways to dramatically increase food production, the effects of climate change are making production increases more difficult.