GAZETTE: How does the map address this?
RADEMACHER: The map shows what would be the optimal way to feed the world at the moment, if we had a clean slate. We looked at data for the most important crops. We included 25 crops for which we could get consistent datasets, like wheat, barley, and soybean. The crops account for about 77 percent of the global food production, so it’s a substantial part of what humanity eats. Then we asked how much does each crop yield in a specific place and why, and what is the environmental impact in this specific place? Once we had calculated these things for all possible combinations of crops, locations, and impacts, we optimized it. We looked at how we can minimize the impact while keeping the yields sufficient to feed the world. Such an optimal configuration would capture large amounts of carbon, increase biodiversity, and cut agricultural use of fresh water to zero. For instance, in one optimized scenario, the impact of crop production on the world’s biodiversity would be reduced by 87 percent, drastically reducing the extinction risk for many species.
GAZETTE: What would be some major changes to the current agricultural map?
RADEMACHER: There are some really striking differences in terms of where production is optimal and how much land is needed. The reimagined map would have largely new farming areas for most major crops — like wheat, rice, and maize. Generally, the optimal locations for production according to our model are, for example, in the Corn Belt in the midwestern U.S., south of the Sahel in Africa, and a few other places like Ukraine and Argentina. One specific example is California. We traditionally think of California as very productive with high agricultural yields for crops, but it seems that the environmental impacts are not necessarily worth the yields for staple crops like wheat, barley, and maize compared to other areas like the western Corn Belt or the Argentinian Pampas.
Another big change is that huge areas of farmland in Europe and India would be restored to their natural habitat. This would make space for natural ecosystems to breathe from the onslaught of development and the combined climate and biodiversity crisis. The other striking feature is really that tropical forests are basically completely avoided by the model because of their value for nature.
GAZETTE: Is this plan feasible?
RADEMACHER: One of the important things to remember with this is that doing a complete relocation is kind of utopic — certainly in the short run. The idea is to use this map as a general guide and then identify hot spots or target areas, where we want to focus our efforts in terms of food production and to incentivize production in areas where they minimize environmental impacts. What are the areas that have the highest environmental impact, the highest impact on nature? Even if we relocate only 5 to 10 percent of the worst offenders in terms of impact on the natural environment, we can potentially — depending on the intensity of farming use —reduce the environmental impact by half, according to our model.
GAZETTE: Are there any other ways projects like this that embrace big ideas that can contribute to the overall effort to mitigate climate change?
RADEMACHER: It’s important to have a vision of what the ideal world would look like. These big ideas help us to better home in on what is possible and then identify workable solutions that need to integrate economic and social factors. One of the things that was important for us was we didn’t want to make this exclusively about carbon. We wanted to find a way to also include biodiversity and fresh water use because agriculture is a stressor in all of these different areas. By taking this globally consistent approach, we are able to say not only is this area really important for carbon, but it is generally really important when you consider these multiple factors. These types of ideas are also actually quite important because they can give us a little bit of hope.