GAZETTE: How does the card deal with this?
WHEEL MAKERS: The map shows what would currently be the optimal way to feed the world if we had a clean slate. We looked at data for the main crops. We included 25 crops for which we could obtain consistent datasets, such as wheat, barley, and soybeans. Crops account for about 77 percent of the world’s food production, so they are an essential part of what humanity eats. Then we asked how much yield each crop produces in a specific location and why, and what the environmental impact is in that specific location. After calculating these things for all possible combinations of crops, locations, and impacts, we optimized them. We looked at how to minimize the impact while keeping the yields high enough to feed the world. Such an optimal configuration would capture large amounts of carbon, increase biodiversity and reduce agricultural use of freshwater to zero. For example, in an optimized scenario, the impact of crop production on global biodiversity would be reduced by 87 percent, drastically reducing the risk of extinction for many species.
GAZETTE: What would be some major changes to the current agricultural map?
WHEEL MAKERS: There are some really notable differences in terms of where production is optimal and how much land is required. The redesigned map would have largely new growing areas for most major crops – like wheat, rice and corn. In general, the optimal locations for production according to our model are, for example, in the Corn Belt in the Midwest of the USA, south of the Sahel in Africa and some other places like Ukraine and Argentina. A specific example is California. We traditionally think of California as very productive with high agricultural yields for crops, but it seems that the environmental impact isn’t necessarily worth the yields for staples like wheat, barley and corn compared to other areas like the Western Corn Belt or Argentina’s Pampas.
Another major change is that vast tracts of arable land in Europe and India would be restored to their natural habitat. This would provide room for natural ecosystems to breathe before the onslaught of development and the combined climate and biodiversity crisis. Really, the other striking feature is that tropical forests are generally completely avoided by the model due to their value to nature.
GAZETTE: Is this plan feasible?
WHEEL MAKERS: One of the most important things to keep in mind is that a complete move is somewhat of a utopia – certainly in the short term. The idea is to use this map as a general guide and then identify hotspots or target areas where we want to focus our food production efforts and stimulate production in areas where they minimize the environmental impact. What are the areas with the greatest environmental impact, the greatest impact on nature? Even if we relocate only 5 to 10 percent of the worst polluters, we can potentially reduce the environmental impact by half according to our model, depending on the intensity of agricultural use.
GAZETTE: Are there other ways projects like this include big ideas that can contribute to the overall effort to mitigate climate change?
WHEEL MAKERS: It’s important to have an idea of what the ideal world would be like. These big ideas help us to better see what is possible and then find workable solutions that need to integrate economic and social factors. One of the things that was important to us was that we didn’t want to be all about carbon here. We wanted to find a way to include biodiversity and freshwater use as well, as farming is a stressor in all of these different areas. By taking this globally consistent approach, we can say that not only is this area really important for carbon, but it’s really important in general when you consider these multiple factors. These kinds of ideas are also pretty important because they can give us a little bit of hope.