Tom Eisenhauer remembers driving by Manitoba, a province in the center of the Canada, more than a decade ago, surrounded by peculiar crops from cold regions, such as wheat, pea and canola (rapeseed). The dense fields of food as corn and Soy, which are more profitable, were few and far between. This landscape is very different now. More than 5,300 square kilometers in the region were sown with soybeans and another around 1,500, with corn.
Eisenhauer’s company, Bonnefield Financial, hopes to benefit from the ways in which the climate changes are transforming Canadian agriculture. The company buys land and leases the properties to farmers in Manitoba and other parts of the country. His bet is that the warmer climate will constantly raise the value of land by allowing farmers in the places he invests to grow more valuable products than traditionally preferred.
It is far from the only company betting on it. Climate change could produce a cornucopia of possibilities in lands previously frozen in unproductive. And it could also enormously harm regions that produce food for millions of people.
The amount of space used for agricultural production has increased over the centuries. Since 1700, areas covered by crops and pastures have increased fivefold. Most of the growth occurred in the first half of the 20th century. From the 1960s onwards, the indiscriminate use of chemical fertilizers, the development of more productive varieties of grain and rice, along with easier access to irrigation, pesticides and machinery, they enabled farmers to make much more use of the fields they already had. In recent decades, technologies such as gene editing and improvements in data processing have helped to further increase yields.
The global rise in temperatures that began towards the end of the 20th century has slowed productivity increases but has not stopped them. A recent study by researchers at Cornell University calculates that since 1971, climate change brought about by human activity has slowed the increase in agricultural productivity by about a fifth.
The windstorm caused by climate change will blow with increasing force, says Ariel Ortiz-Bobea, one of the authors of the study. His research found that the vulnerability of agricultural productivity increases as the temperature of the planet. each additional fraction of a degree to the temperature will be more detrimental to food production than the previous rise.
This is especially bad news for food producers in places like the tropics, which are already hot. Another study predicts that with each degree of increase in global temperature, corn production drops by 7.4%, wheat production by 6% and rice production by 3.2%. These three foods provide about two-thirds of all the calories humans consume.
In the coming decades, there will be more mouths to feed. The Institute of Metrics and Health Assessment, an American research group, predicts that the world’s population will grow from 7.8 billion people today to 9.7 billion in 2064 (it is expected to fall after that). Growing middle classes in many developing countries are demanding ever greater variety of food, and more quantity.
Hence the importance of the changes that global warming brings to arable areas. The expansion of the tropical zone will alter rainfall patterns in the subtropical zones. The especially rapid melting of the polar regions is opening up new lands at high latitudes at the same time. Regions of North America and China are warming up at least twice as fast as the global average. And, as Eisenhauer’s experience in Manitoba can attest, crops are already approaching the poles in response.
A study published by Colorado State University researchers in the journal nature, in 2020, saw notable changes in the distribution of various crops that depend on rain between 1973 and 2012, as farmers began to make different decisions about which crops should be planted in which places. Corn production, for example, has spread from the southeastern US to the northern midwest of the country. Wheat has moved so substantially to the north, with the help of irrigation methods, that it has overcome this trend caused by warming: the warmer places where wheat is grown today are cooler than the warmer places it was grown in 1975 .
Soybeans provide 65% of all protein consumed by livestock. The cultivation of these wonder grains has advanced both north and south, while new varieties and other advances have allowed them to expand into tropical regions. China’s rice-growing regions have been expanding north since 1949. Wine-growing grape and other fruit crops have also migrated north.
Eisenhauer says investors are increasingly turning to Canadian land as a hedge against weather risks they find elsewhere. Martin Davies of Westchester, a large agricultural investment firm, says he has seen similar trends in many parts of the world.
A traveling feast?
Brave investors see opportunities in land that currently does not support any type of agriculture. At present, only about a third of the globe’s boreal regions – a biome characterized by coniferous forests that cover vast swaths of land south of the Arctic Circle – reach temperatures warm enough for the most robust cereal crops such as oats and barley. This dimension could expand to three-quarters by 2099, according to a study published in 2018 in the journal Scientific Reports. The range of boreal lands capable of supporting agriculture could increase from 8% to 41% in Sweden – and from 51% to 83% in Finland.
Efforts to cultivate these regions will alarm people who value pristine boreal forests. And cutting down those forests and plowing the soil that lies beneath them will emit carbon. But the weather effects are more complex than they might appear. Boreal forests absorb more heat from the sun than crop fields because snow-covered land reflects light back into space (in forests, snow lies under trees and doesn’t get as much light). The fact that cutting down boreal forests may not exacerbate climate change, however, says nothing about the extent to which it may affect biodiversity, ecosystem services or the lives of people who live in the forests, especially indigenous people.
Some countries are already willing to capitalize on climate change. the government of Russia qualifies rising temperatures as a trump card for a long time. The president Vladimir Putin he boasted once that the warming allowed the Russians to spend less money on fur coats and grow more grain. In 2020, a “national action plan” on climate change outlined ways in which the country could “take advantage” of the phenomenon, including in the expansion of agriculture. Russia is the world’s largest wheat producer since 2015, mainly due to rising temperatures.
Russia’s government has begun leasing thousands of square kilometers of land in the far east of the country to Chinese, South Korean and Japanese investors. Much of this previously unproductive land is now used to grow soybeans. Most of the production is imported by China, which helps the country to reduce its dependence on US imports. Sergei Levin, Russian Deputy Minister of Agriculture, predicted that soybean exports produced in the lands in the far east of his country will reach US$ 600 million by 2024. This would represent almost five times the value of 2017. The government of Newfoundland and Labrador , a province in northeastern Canada, is also trying to promote the expansion of agriculture into forest-covered regions.
There is another way, besides high temperatures, in which human-made changes in the atmosphere could help projects of this kind move forward. Carbon dioxide is not just a greenhouse gas; it is also the raw material for photosynthesis that feeds and makes plants grow. For most vegetables, if everything else is constant, more carbon dioxide means more growth. The accumulation of carbon dioxide over the past century has brought about a clearly measurable “global greening” as plants that benefit most from higher levels of carbon dioxide have proliferated. This effect can help to increase crop yields. But it’s not purely beneficial. Larger crops can be less nutritious.
Furthermore, climate change will alter rainfall patterns. This will not necessarily benefit the increase in crops in boreal regions. Many areas whose climate is getting mild enough for agriculture may end up without enough water, at least for intensive irrigation. Others can end up with too much water. Agricultural products aren’t the only organisms whose range expands with rising temperatures: pests and pathogens, which are often eliminated by cold winters, also spread. Soil is also an important factor. The best quality ones most commonly occur at lower latitudes, not the far north.
Some of the new arable lands emerge close to established agricultural systems. But, for example, transforming remote regions of the Siberia – where much of the infrastructure is sinking or has been ruined as a result of melting permafrost – it will be a slow and expensive process. Farms on the new agricultural frontier will also have to attract and accommodate many workers. Enterprises will have to rely increasingly on foreign migrants, an idea that dislikes voters in many rich countries.
On the whole, the boreal expansion of arable land will not go far in the direction of mitigating the damage that climate change could cause to agriculture. The societies that will benefit from this are already mostly rich. Poor countries, much more dependent on the profit of agricultural exports, will suffer.
A much broader range of adaptations will be needed if food is to remain as plentiful, varied and accessible as it is today. This will include efforts to help crops withstand higher temperatures, for example through intelligent genetic crosses and advances in irrigation and protection from bad weather. Rich and poor countries should prioritize policies to reduce food waste (the UN Food and Agriculture Agency estimates that more than a third of all food produced is wasted). The alternative to that is a world hungrier and more unequal than it is now – and what it could be in the future. / TRANSLATION OF AUGUSTO CALIL