An increase in the amount of land being used for crops is one of the main reasons for the continuing loss of biodiversity and threatens to undermine attempts to meet international environmental goals.
This is according to a new report involving scientists from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) made available to the Ghana News Agency in Accra on Friday.
The report entitled: “Crop Expansion and Conservation Priorities in Tropical Countries”, details how land, which is often rich in biodiversity, is being converted or set aside for crops like rice and maize in some 128 tropical countries.
The study warns that such trends, if continued, could derail progress towards meeting the Aichi Biodiversity Targets – a set of 20, time-bound measurable targets aimed at halting global biodiversity loss by the middle of the century.
It highlights the urgent need for more effective sustainability standards and policies to address production and consumption of tropical commodities, including robust land-use planning.
The establishment of new protected areas, projects to support forests (such as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, or REDD+) in places agriculture has not yet reached, and the reduction or elimination of incentives for land-demanding bio-energy feed stocks.
It also warns that areas of high biodiversity value may also be vulnerable to similar land conversion patterns in the future; these include priority conservation areas such as Frontier Forests and High Biodiversity Wilderness Areas, which have previously been identified as having ‘low vulnerability’.
According to the report there are also many other smaller areas which are important for biodiversity and which have high cultivation potential, such as on the fringes of the Amazon basin, in the Paraguayan Chaco, and in the savannah woodlands of the Sahel and East Africa.
Researchers from UNEP’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre and the Cambridge Conservation Initiative analyzed data on crop distribution and expansion, assessed changes in area of main crops, and mapped overlaps between conservation priorities and cultivation potential.
They found that cropland in tropical countries expanded by around 48,000 km² per year from 1999 to 2008; with rice being the single crop grown over the largest area, especially in tropical forest habitats.
According to the report countries which added the greatest area of new cropland were Nigeria, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Sudan and Brazil.
It said soybeans and maize are the crops which expanded most in absolute area; while other crops with large increases included rice, sorghum, oil palm, beans, sugar cane, cow peas, wheat and cassava.
UNEP will launch later this month a campaign against food waste, which also aims to lessen the pressure on land as yet unused for agriculture.
The report has been published in the run-up to the first plenary meeting of the newly-created Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) in Bonn, Germany from 21 to 26 January 2013.
IPBES, which was established in April 2012, creates a mechanism recognized by both scientific and policy communities to synthesize, review, assess and critically evaluate relevant information and knowledge generated worldwide.