The Environmental Impacts of Achieving Global Food Security: From Agricultural Intensification to Large-Scale Land Acquisitions

Davis, Kyle, Environmental Sciences - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
D'Odorico, Paolo, Environmental Sciences, University of Virginia

Producing more food while minimizing environmental impacts is one of humanity’s most pressing challenges for achieving sustainable development. Rising affluence, demographic growth, increased crop-based biofuel use, and an intensifying livestock sector are contributing to unprecedented demands on crop production – and the resources required to support it – while climate change already shows evidence of affecting historical crop yield trends. Because of these pressures on a finite amount of suitable agriculture land, many countries and investors have begun acquiring large tracts of land in the global South, where land is relatively inexpensive, the potential to increase crop yields is generally high and property rights are often poorly defined. By acquiring land, investors can realize large profits and countries can substantially alter the land and water resources under their control, thereby changing their outlook for meeting future demand. In permitting such investments, targeted countries also hope to promote the rapid inflow of agricultural technologies into their underperforming agricultural areas. However, many of the impacts of agricultural intensification and land acquisition remain poorly understood.

To this end, this dissertation examined the major historical impacts of agricultural intensification on rural livelihoods and the environment as well as the potential of the global food system to meet future demand while minimizing environmental impacts. The work contained herein showed that the livestock sector has led to important food-environment tradeoffs and has become more efficient in terms of land use and greenhouse gas emissions. This dissertation also demonstrated that a combination of enhancing crop yields and moderating diets has the potential to greatly increase the number of people able to be fed globally. Following these studies of food supply and its environmental impacts, this work assessed the impacts of large-scale land investments on livelihoods and the environment in targeted areas. The results of these studies showed that millions of people in the developing world could potentially lose their livelihoods as a result of displacements and that land concessions have significantly and substantially enhanced rates of forest loss in Cambodia. Finally, this dissertation showed that there is a large potential to reduce the amount of resources associated with food production while meeting future demand, thereby increasing the self-sufficiency of nations and minimizing the need for land acquisitions elsewhere. The many novel contributions of this dissertation help to integrate the various benefits and impacts of the global food system and inform responsible decision-making that incorporates human well-being and environmental stewardship.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
food security, sustainable agriculture, global land rush, diets, forest loss, rural livelihoods, footprint, yield gap, land grabbing, large-scale land acquisition, livestock, tradeoffs, environmental impact
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