Increased use of chemicals in agriculture worldwide seen as major environmental threat

(Santa Barbara, Calif.) Agriculture will be a major driver of global environmental change over the next 50 years, rivaling the effect of greenhouse gases in its impact, according to a new study published in this week's journal Science.

"The global impact of agriculture will be at least as great as climate change," said lead author David Tilman, visiting researcher at the National Center for Environmental Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "We have to find wiser ways to farm."

As an NCEAS working group, the co-authors spent eight months gathering all the data they could find on the global impact of humans mediated by anything except climate change. Agriculture turned out to be the largest.

World population, expected to be 9 billion (double the present population) by the year 2050, will require the conversion of natural ecosystems covering an area larger than the size of the United States including Alaska, as demand for food doubles. This expansion of agricultural land is expected to occur mostly in Latin America and sub-Saharan central Africa. The authors also explain that additional natural habitat would be lost to urban and suburban development.

"During the first 35 years of the Green Revolution, global grain production doubled, greatly reducing food shortages, but at a high environmental cost," said the authors.

The increase in grain production was accomplished through adding nitrogen, phosphorus and pesticides to the soils which are then carried in run-off into the nearest bodies of water, explain the authors. These nutrients then cause large algal blooms to grow, which use up the oxygen, die, create scum and cause the fish in the area to die. Currently there is a "dead-zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, first discovered by fishermen. This zone is about 50 by 100 miles and is caused by agricultural run

Contact: Gail Brown
University of California - Santa Barbara

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