Global Environmental Impacts of Agricultural Expansion: The Need for Sustainable and Efficient Practices
The recent intensification of agriculture, and the prospects of future intensification, will have major detrimental impacts on the nonagricultural terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems of the world. The doubling of agricultural food production during the past 35 years was associated with a 6.87-fold increase in nitrogen fertilization, a 3.48-fold increase in phosphorus fertilization, a 1.68-fold increase in the amount of irrigated cropland, and a 1.1-fold increase in land in cultivation. Based on a simple linear extension of past trends, the anticipated next doubling of global food production would be associated with approximately 3-fold increases in nitrogen and phosphorus fertilization rates, a doubling of the irrigated land area, and an 18% increase in cropland. These projected changes would have dramatic impacts on the diversity, composition, and functioning of the remaining natural ecosystems of the world, and on their ability to provide society with a variety of essential ecosystem services. The largest impacts would be on freshwater and marine ecosystems, which would be greatly eutrophied by high rates of nitrogen and phosphorus release from agricultural fields. Aquatic nutrient eutrophication can lead to loss of biodiversity, outbreaks of nuisance species, shifts in the structure of food chains, and impairment of fisheries. Because of aerial redistribution of various forms of nitrogen, agricultural intensification also would eutrophy many natural terrestrial ecosystems and contribute to atmospheric accumulation of greenhouse gases. These detrimental environmental impacts of agriculture can be minimized only if there is much more efficient use and recycling of nitrogen and phosphorus in agroecosystems.