Feedbacks between agriculture and climate: An illustration of the potential unintended consequences of human land use activities

Navin Ramankutty, Christine Delire, Peter Snyder

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

66 Scopus citations


Agriculture has significantly transformed the face of the planet. In particular, croplands have replaced natural vegetation over large areas of the global land surface, covering around 18 million km2 of the land surface today. To grow crops, humans have taken advantage of the resource provided by climate - optimum temperature and precipitation. However, the clearing of land for establishing croplands might have resulted in an inadvertent change in the climate. This feedback might, in turn, have altered the suitability of land for growing crops. In this sensitivity study, we used a combination of land cover data sets, numerical models, and cropland suitability analysis, to estimate the degree to which the replacement of natural vegetation by croplands might have altered the land suitability for cultivation. We found that the global changes in cropland suitability are likely to have been fairly small, however large regional changes in cropland suitability might have occurred. Our theoretical study showed that major changes in suitability occurred in Canada, Eastern Europe, the Former Soviet Union, northern India, and China. Although the magnitude, sign, and spatial patterns of change indicated by this study may be an artifact of our particular model and experimental design, our study is illustrative of the potential inadvertent consequences of human activities on the land. Moreover, it offers a methodology for evaluating how climate changes due to human activities on the land may alter the multiple services offered by ecosystems to human beings.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)79-93
Number of pages15
JournalGlobal and Planetary Change
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Nov 2006

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We would like to thank Drs. Steve Vavrus, Tracy Twine, and Jon Foley for their thoughtful suggestions regarding this work. Three anonymous referees and Dr. Thomas Stohlgren made very constructive comments that led to substantial revisions and improvement of this manuscript. This work was supported by the NASA's Office of Earth Science (through Interdisciplinary Science (IDS) Program grant NAG5-9452) and by a grant from the McDonnell foundation. We would like to thank the Land Use and Land Cover Change (LUCC) program for being supportive of such global-scale research on land use change.


  • agriculture
  • climate
  • land cover
  • land use
  • modeling


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