Trading carbon for food: Global comparison of carbon stocks vs. crop yields on agricultural land

Holly Gibbs – et al.

Published by
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 107 no. 44
November 1, 2010

Expanding croplands to meet the needs of a growing population, changing diets, and biofuel production comes at the cost of reduced carbon stocks in natural vegetation and soils. Here, we present a spatially explicit global analysis of tradeoffs between carbon stocks and current crop yields. The difference among regions is striking. For example, for each unit of land cleared, the tropics lose nearly two times as much carbon (∼120 tons·ha-1 vs. ∼63 tons·ha-1) and produce less than one-half the annual crop yield compared with temperate regions (1.71 tons·ha-1·y-1 vs. 3.84 tons·ha-1·y-1). Therefore, newly cleared land in the tropics releases nearly 3 tons of carbon for every 1 ton of annual crop yield compared with a similar area cleared in the temperate zone. By factoring crop yield into the analysis, we specify the tradeoff between carbon stocks and crops for all areas where crops are currently grown and thereby, substantially enhance the spatial resolution relative to previous regional estimates. Particularly in the tropics, emphasis should be placed on increasing yields on existing croplands rather than clearing new lands. Our high-resolution approach can be used to determine the net effect of local land use decisions.