The needless expansion of farmland has become one of the biggest threats to the planet’s ecological health. To protect wildlife habitats, developing countries must increase the productivity of existing acreage by encouraging more sustainable farming practices.
CAMBRIDGE – On April 3, the United Kingdom announced a ban on the sale of ivory that is “one of the toughest in the world.” By restricting the ivory trade, the UK joined other countries – including China and the United States – in using market deterrents to discourage poaching and shield an endangered species from extinction. As British Environment Secretary Michael Gove put it in the announcement, the goal is to “protect elephants for future generations.”
These are, to be sure, laudable gestures in the service of a noble goal. But ending ivory sales alone will not reverse declines in elephant populations. In fact, the biggest threat facing these and many other species is a far more ordinary human pursuit: farming.
Throughout the developing world, farmers are expanding areas of cultivation in an endless quest for fertile soil. In the process, critical wildlife habitats are being destroyed at an alarming rate. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), if current trends hold, by 2050 the world’s arable land will increase by some 70 million hectares, and much of the new farmland will be on areas that are currently forested. The risk is greatest in South America and Sub-Saharan Africa, where population growth and food demand will hit tropical woodlands particularly hard.