What Are We Doing with our Planet’s Land? A Report from Berlin

March 21, 2014
Doug Boucher
Former contributor

I’m in Berlin at the Global Land Project conference, a biennial gathering of about 1000 scientists who study how we Earthlings use our world. I gave a talk on beef compared to other meats in the informal “Pecha Kucha” format, which requires you to use only 20 slides, each displayed for only 20 seconds. It was fun, but the big excitement has been hearing new ideas presented by researchers from all over the world.

Relaxing in Berlin. SOURCE: berlin-life.com

Relaxing in Berlin. SOURCE: berlin-life.com

A few examples:

  • Eric Lambin and Anette Reenberg both pointed out how land use is now “telecoupled”, depending on “distal connections” that span the globe. Chinese pork is raised on Brazilian soy; European companies selling deodorant adopt zero-deforestation policies for the palm oil they buy from Indonesia in response to U.S. NGO pressure. Land use isn’t local anymore.
  • Xuifeng Cui argued that China went through a land use transition between 1950 and 1980, fundamentally transforming the relationship between population, cropland, and forest. Population and cropland now grow but so does the area of forest.
  • Alexander Preshchepov showed that there has been massive abandonment of cropland and pasture in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, with little prospect for reversal.
  • Cheikh Mbow contended that while there has been some recovery from the 20th-century droughts in the Sahel, the climate models predict increases in both aridity and variability.
  • Britaldo Soares Filho made the case that while intensification reduces the amount of pasture used per cow in Brazil, this is being outpaced by increases in the total herd in response to growing demand for beef.
  • Robin Chazdon demonstrated that a basic idea about succession — that forest recovery is predictable based on age — is not true in the tropics. This discovery undercuts decades of conventional (but untested) wisdom among ecologists.

All in all, lots of intellectual excitement!