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According to a landmark new study, 102 million hectares (Mha) (252 million acres) of land — an area the size of Egypt — have been converted to crops since the start of the 21st century. To put this into perspective, while it took more than 8,000 years for humanity to convert 1.1 billion hectares (2.8 billion acres) of nature into cropland by the year 2000, it took a mere 20 more years to expand this area by another 10%.
These findings come from the first-ever high-resolution maps of global cropland extent and change during the 21st century, recently published in Nature Food by researchers from the University of Maryland and now available via the Land & Carbon Lab. The researchers defined “cropland” as land used for annual and perennial herbaceous crops for human consumption, animal feed, forage (including hay) and biofuel. The definition excludes pastures and rangelands, shifting cultivation and tree crops such as fruit orchards, coffee, cocoa, oil palm and rubber.
These satellite-based findings are troubling news for climate and biodiversity, since much of the expansion comes at the expense of forests and other natural ecosystems. Of course, food crops are critical for feeding a growing global population. But to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees C and curtail the 6th great species extinction, increases in food production needs to be decoupled from ecosystem conversion.