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Models shed light on the trade-offs between future agricultural expansion, forests and biodiversity

14 June 2016

How can we balance increasing demands for food, fibre and fuel with the need to conserve biodiversity under a changing climate? A paper published last month by UNEP-WCMC and others suggests that a spatially explicit exploration of trade-offs can support better land use planning and reduce biodiversity losses from projected agricultural expansion in East Africa. It also highlights the role of protected areas in helping to reduce biodiversity losses at the national scale.

As population grows, the demand for food and other agricultural products increases and the expansion of agriculture into non cultivated areas seems inevitable. Yet, these may harbour important biodiversity and provide essential ecosystem services, including those necessary to support agriculture. Understanding the trade-offs between increasing agricultural production and conserving biodiversity and ecosystem services, underpinned by spatially explicit information on the effect of different potential trajectories of land use change, can help support sustainable land use planning and policy development.

A new paper led by UNEP-WCMC: Exploring future agricultural development and biodiversity in Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi: a spatially explicit scenario based assessment, assesses the potential impacts of four plausible future socio-economic and climate scenarios for agricultural production on forests and biodiversity in Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, under different conservation policies. The paper is the result of work conducted as part of a UNEP-WCMC project entitled Commodities and Biodiversity, funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

For this study, UNEP-WCMC teamed-up with some of the world’s leading agricultural research and modelling centres. The socio-economic scenarios for the East Africa region used in this study were developed through the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) then quantified the scenarios using the IMPACT agricultural economic model, whose outputs were used by the Centre for Environmental Systems Research (CESR, University of Kassel) to simulate land use and land cover change for 2005 and 2050 using the LandSHIFT model. Finally, UNEP-WCMC assessed potential impacts of these projected changes on biodiversity using a biodiversity metric based on the distribution of suitable habitat for species in the region and weighted by their global range size (i.e. how endemic a species is).

The study found that different future socio-economic scenarios show relatively consistent projections of areas of high agricultural development leading to similar spatial patterns of habitat and biodiversity loss. Yet, the results also show that protected areas help reduce forest loss at the national scale under all scenarios in Rwanda and Burundi where there are few forests outside of these areas, but not in Uganda where forest still exists outside of protected areas. Without protected areas, biodiversity losses are higher under all scenarios, while extending protected areas to include other important biodiversity sites can help reduce biodiversity losses in all three countries.

“Informed spatial planning can help to minimise the effects of expanding cultivation on biodiversity” says Marieke Sassen who led the Commodities and Biodiversity project at UNEP-WCMC and is an author on the paper. “However, it will be important to understand other local socio-economic trade-offs of land use decisions, since areas of high biodiversity importance that are not under formal protection often support the livelihoods of large numbers of poor people.”

The question of how to balance agriculture development and biodiversity conservation was the subject of discussions between governments, scientists and businesses at the 8th Trondheim Conference on Biodiversity last week, which UNEP-WCMC helped to facilitate. The importance of scenarios and models to improve understanding of biodiversity-agriculture inter-linkages was well recognised at the event. UNEP-WCMC is working to ensure that these tools and knowledge support more sustainable agricultural development strategies, from global to sub-national scales.

van Soesbergen, A., Arnell, A.P., Sassen, M., Stuch, B., Schaldach, R., Göpel, J., Vervoort, J., Mason-D'Croz, D., Islam, S. and Palazzo, A. (2016) Exploring future agricultural development and biodiversity in Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi: a spatially explicit scenario-based assessment. Regional Environmental Change, pp.1-12. DOI 10.1007/s10113-016-0983-6