Oil crops play a critical role in global food and energy systems. Since these crops have high oil content, they provide cooking oils for human consumption, biofuels for energy, feed for animals, and ingredients in beauty products and industrial processes. In 2014, oil crops occupied about 20% of crop harvested area worldwide. While small-scale oil crop production for subsistence or local consumption continues in certain regions, global demand for these versatile crops has led to substantial expansion of oil crop agriculture destined for export or urban markets. This expansion and subsequent cultivation has diverse effects on the environment, including loss of forests, savannas, and grasslands, greenhouse gas emissions, regional climate change, biodiversity decline, fire, and altered water quality and hydrology. Oil palm in Southeast Asia and soybean in South America have been identified as major proximate causes of tropical deforestation and environmental degradation. Stringent conservation policies and yield increases are thought to be critical to reducing rates of soybean and oil palm expansion into natural ecosystems. However, the higher profits that often accompany greater yields may encourage further expansion, while policies that restrict oil crop expansion in one region may generate secondary “spillover” effects on other crops and regions. Due to these complex feedbacks, ensuring a sustainable supply of oil crop products to meet global demand remains a major challenge for agricultural companies, farmers, governments, and civil society.
Kimberly M. Carlson and Rachael D. Garrett
Assessing the environmental footprints of modern agriculture requires a balanced approach that sets the obviously negative effects (e.g., incidents with excessive use of inputs) against benefits stemming from increased resource use efficiencies. In the case of rice production, the regular flooding of fields comprises a distinctive feature, as compared to other crops, which directly or indirectly affects diverse impacts on the environment. In the regional context of Southeast Asia, rice production is characterized by dynamic changes in terms of crop management practices, so that environmental footprints can only be assessed from time-dependent developments rather than from a static view. The key for the Green Revolution in rice was the introduction of high-yielding varieties in combination with a sufficient water and nutrient supply as well as pest management. More recently, mechanization has evolved as a major trend in modern rice production. Mechanization has diverse environmental impacts and may also be instrumental in tackling the most drastic pollution source from rice production, namely, open field burning of straw. As modernization of rice production is imperative for future food supplies, there is scope for developing sustainable and high-yielding rice production systems by capitalizing on the positive aspects of modernization from a local to a global scale.
Research during the late 20th and early 21st centuries found that traces of human intervention in vegetation in Southeast Asian and Australasian forests started extremely early, quite probably close to the first colonization of the region by modern people around or before 50,000 years ago. It also identified what may be insubstantial evidence for the translocation of economically important plants during the latest Pleistocene and Early Holocene. These activities may reflect early experiments with plants which evolved into agroforestry. Early in the Holocene, land management/food procurement systems, in which trees were a very significant component, seem to have developed over very extensive areas, often underpinned by dispersal of starchy plants, some of which seem to show domesticated morphologies, although the evidence for this is still relatively insubstantial. These land management/food procurement systems might be regarded as a sort of precursor to agroforestry. Similar systems were reported historically during early Western contact, and some agroforest systems survive to this day, although they are threatened in many places by expansion of other types of land use. The wide range of recorded agroforestry makes categorizing impacts problematical, but widespread disruption of vegetational succession across the region during the Holocene can perhaps be ascribed to agroforestry or similar land-management systems, and in more recent times impacts on biodiversity and geomorphological systems can be distinguished. Impacts of these early interventions in forests seem to have been variable and locally contingent, but what seem to have been agroforestry systems have persisted for millennia, suggesting that some may offer long-term sustainability.