Tropical agriculturalisation: scenarios, their environmental impacts and the role of climate change in determining water-for-food, locally and along supply chains


The aim of this paper is to examine the potential for continued agriculturalisation in the tropics and the potential impacts of this on tropical natural capital and ecosystem services. Concurrently we examine the extent to which projected climate change will drive changes in the water available to support food security, locally and along supply chains through impacts on rainfall in key agricultural areas and the implications of climate change for continued agriculturalisation. We make use of global spatial datasets to examine the tropical distribution of current cropland and pasture and the distribution of the remaining non-agricultural ‘wild’ areas in relation to their suitability for cropland and pasture. We thus identify the most suitable/likely areas for further agriculturalisation in the tropics under increased domestic and export demand. We then examine the potential risks to natural capital and ecosystem services of such agriculturalisation and highlight critical areas for careful agricultural expansion. We examine the non-agricultural lands with greatest suitability for pasture and cropland and highlight the key countries capable of contributing to significant increases in global food production. Further, we examine trends in recent land use change and project these forward to understand the parts of those countries most imminently likely to go under the plough and consider implications for natural capital and ecosystem services. We then examine ensemble climate change projections for the current agricultural areas in Latin America, to better understand likely impacts of tropical climate change on sustained agricultural suitability in these areas, with implications for further extensification. Finally, we use the COMTRADE database to examine the flows of “embedded rainfall” supporting key agricultural commodities from the tropics. This is in order to understand the extent to which climate change will amplify or diminish the potential for virtual water flows between the tropics and the rest of the world. Results indicate rapid and necessary agriculturalisation in the tropics under business as usual, which brings considerable threats to the remaining natural capital and ecosystem services in these areas. At the same time we expect climate change - at least for South America - to bring greater water availability and the possibility of increased productivity in current agricultural areas. If true, this could offset some of the demand for expensive and risky extensification of agriculture, and encourage a more focused intensification.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6
Fig. 7
Fig. 8
Fig. 9
Fig. 10


  1. 1.

    Free and open to use at

  2. 2.

    Wheat, Wetland rice, Dryland rice, Maize, Barley, Sorghum, Rye, Pearl millet, Foxtail millet, Oat, Buckwheat, White potato, Sweet potato, Cassava, Yam, Sugarcane, Sugar beet, Phaseolus bean, Chickpea, Cowpea, Dry pea, Gram, Pigeonpea, Soybean, Sunflower, Rape, Groundnut, Oil palm, Olive, Jatropha, Cabbage, Carrot, Onion, Tomato, Banana/Plantain, Citrus, Coconut, Cacao, Cotton, Flax, Coffee, Tea, Tobacco, Alfalfa, Pasture, Grass, Miscanthus, Switchgrass, Reed canary grass


  1. Alcamo, J., Leemans, R., & Kreileman, E., (1998). Global Change Scenarios of the 21st Century. Results from the IMAGE 2.1 Model. Elsevier, Amsterdam, 296 pp.

  2. Birdlife International IUCN redlist for birds (2010).

  3. Brown, S., & Zarin, D. (2013). What does zero deforestation mean? Science, 342(6160), 805–807.

    PubMed  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Brown, K. A., Parks, K. E., Bethell, C. A., Johnson, S. E., & Mulligan, M. (2015). Predicting plant diversity patterns in Madagascar: understanding the effects of climate and land cover change in a biodiversity hotspot. PloS One, 10(4), e0122721. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0122721.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Coe, M. T., Costa, M. H., & Soares-Filho, B. S. (2009). The Influence of historical and potential future deforestation on the stream flow of the Amazon River — land surface processes and atmospheric feedbacks. Journal of Hydrology, 369, 165–174.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. DiMiceli, C. M., Carroll, M. L., Sohlberg, R. A., Huang, C., Hansen, M. C., & Townshend, J. R. G. (2011). Annual global automated MODIS vegetation continuous fields (MOD44B) at 250 m spatial resolution for data years beginning day 65, 2000–2010, collection 5 percent tree cover. College Park, MD, USA: University of Maryland.

    Google Scholar 

  7. FAO (2014). Global Administrative Unit Layers (GAUL). [available online].

  8. FAO and IIASA (2012). Agro-ecological suitability and productivity. Crop suitability index,

  9. FAO and IIASA (2007). Mapping biophysical factors that influence agricultural production and rural vulnerability,

  10. Fisher, B. (2010). African exception to drivers of deforestation. Nature Geoscience, 3(6), 375–376.

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Galford, G. L., Soares-Filho, B., & Cerri, C. E. (2013). Prospects for land-use sustainability on the agricultural frontier of the Brazilian Amazon. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 368(1619), 20120171.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Green, J. M., Larrosa, C., Burgess, N. D., Balmford, A., Johnston, A., Mbilinyi, B. P.,... & Coad, L. (2013). Deforestation in an African biodiversity hotspot: extent, variation and the effectiveness of protected areas. Biological Conservation, 164, 62–72.

  13. Hall, J. S., Ashton, M. S., Garen, E. J., & Jose, S. (2011). The ecology and ecosystem services of native trees: implications for reforestation and land restoration in Mesoamerica. Forest Ecology and Management, 261(10), 1553–1557.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Hammer, D., Kraft, R., & Wheeler, D. (2014). Alerts of forest disturbance from MODIS imagery. International Journal of Applied Earth Observation and Geoinformation, 33, 1–9.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Hansen, M., R. DeFries, J.R. Townshend, M. Carroll, C. Dimiceli, and R. Sohlberg (2006). Vegetation Continuous Fields MOD44B, 2001 Percent Tree Cover, Collection 4, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, 2001.

  16. Hansen, M. C., Potapov, P. V., Moore, R., Hancher, M., Turubanova, S. A., Tyukavina, A., Thau, D., Stehman, S. V., Goetz, S. J., Loveland, T. R., Kommareddy, A., Egorov, A., Chini, L., Justice, C. O., & Townshend, J. R. (2013). High-resolution global maps of 21st-century forest cover change. Science, 342, 850–853.

    PubMed  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Hijmans, R. J., Cameron, S. E., Parra, J. L., Jones, P. G., & Jarvis, A. (2005). Very high resolution interpolated climate surfaces for global land areas. International Journal of Climatology, 25, 1965–1978.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Hope, C., Anderson, J., & Wenman, P. (1993). Policy analysis of the greenhouse effect. Energy Policy, 23, 327–338.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Huddleston, B., Fischer, G., Salvatore, M., Ataman, E., Nachtergaele, F. O., Zanetti, M.,... & Franceschini, G. (2007). Mapping biophysical factors that influence agricultural production and rural vulnerability. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

  20. IUCN, Conservation International, and NatureServe. (2008a). An analysis of amphibians on the 2008 IUCN Red List. []. Downloaded on 9 May 2009.

  21. IUCN, Conservation International, Arizona State University, Texas A&M University, University of Rome, University of Virginia, and Zoological Society London. (2008b). An analysis of mammals on the 2008 IUCN Red List. []. Downloaded on 9 May 2009.

  22. IUCN (2010). An analysis of reptiles on the 2010 IUCN Red List []. Downloaded on 29 November 2010.

  23. Lambin, E. F., & Meyfroidt, P. (2011). Global land use change, economic globalization, and the looming land scarcity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(9), 3465–3472.

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Marta-Pedroso, C., Laporta, L., Proença, V., Azevedo, J. C., & Domingos, T. (2014). Changes in the ecosystem services provided by forests and their economic valuation: a review. In Forest Landscapes and Global Change (pp. 107–137). Springer New York.

  25. McGrath, J. M., & Lobell, D. B. (2013). Regional disparities in the CO2 fertilization effect and implications for crop yields. Environmental Research Letters, 8(1), 014054.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Mulligan, M. (2010). SimTerra : a consistent global gridded database of environmental properties for spatial modelling.

  27. Mulligan, M. A. Guerry, K. Arkema, K. Bagstad and F. Villa (2010). Capturing and quantifying the flow of ecosystem services. In S. Silvestri, & F. Kershaw (Eds.). Framing the flow: Innovative Approaches to Understand, Protect and Value Ecosystem Services Across Linked Habitats. UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre, Cambridge. ISBN 978-92-807-3065-4. [available online].

  28. Mulligan, M., Fisher, M., Sharma, B., Xu, Z. X., Ringler, C., Mahé, G., Jarvis, A., Ramírez, J., Clanet, J.-C., Ogilvie, A., & Ahmad, M.-D. (2011). The nature and impact of climate change in the Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF) basins. Water International 1941–1707, 36(1), 96–124.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Mulligan, M. (2015). Trading off agriculture with nature’s other benefits, spatially in Zolin, C.A and Rodrigues, R de A.R. (eds) Impact of Climate Change on Water Resources in Agriculture. CRC Press, Boca Raton, pp 184–204.

  30. Mulligan, M. and Clifford, N.A. (2015). Is managing ecosystem services necessary and sufficient to ensure sustainable development? in Springet, D. and Redclift, M. (eds) Handbook of Sustainable Development. Routledge, Abingdon, pp 179–195.

  31. Nakicenovic, N. et al. (Eds.), (2000). Special report on emissions scenarios. Cambridge University Press, Cambrige, 599 pp.

  32. Nordhaus, W. (1992). An optimal transition path for controlling greenhouse gases. Science, 258, 1315–1319.

    PubMed  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Oliveira, L. J., Costa, M. H., Soares-Filho, B. S., & Coe, M. T. (2013). Large-scale expansion of agriculture in Amazonia may be a no-win scenario. Environmental Research Letters, 8(2), 024021.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Ramankutty et al. (2008). “Farming the planet: 1. Geographic distribution of global agricultural lands in the year 2000” Global Biogeochemical Cycles Vol. 22: GB1003 doi:10.1029/2007GB002952.

  35. Ramirez, J., Jarvis, A., (2010). Disaggregation of Global Circulation Model outputs. Decision and policy analysis working paper no.2 Available at:

  36. Reymondin, L., A. Jarvis, A. Perez-Uribe, J. Touval, K. Argote, J. Rebetez, E. Guevara, and M. Mulligan. (2012). “Terra-i: A methodology for near real-time monitoring of habitat change at continental scales using MODIS-NDVI and TRMM.” CIAT-Terra-i.

  37. Schneider, A., M. A. Friedl and D. Potere (2009). A new map of global urban extent from MODIS data. Environmental Research Letters, volume 4, article 044003.

  38. Siebert, S., Döll, P., Feick, S., Frenken, K., Hoogeveen, J. (2007). Global map of irrigation areas version 4.0.1. University of Frankfurt (Main), Germany, and FAO, Rome, Italy.

  39. Townshend, J.R.G., M. Carroll, C. Dimiceli, R. Sohlberg M. Hansen, and R. DeFries. (2011). Vegetation Continuous Fields MOD44B, 2001 Percent Tree Cover, Collection 5, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, 2001.

  40. Uchida, H. and Nelson, A. (2009). Agglomeration Index: Towards a New Measure of Urban Concentration. Background paper for the World Bank’s World Development Report.

  41. United Nations Commodity Trade Statistics Database, Department of Economic and Social Affairs/Statistics Division (2013). n COMTRADE database.

  42. Walsh, P. D., & Lawler, D. M. (1981). Rainfall seasonality: description, spatial patterns and change through time. Weather, 36, 201–208.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA) Annual Release 2014 (web download version), Aug 2014. The WDPA is a joint product of UNEP and IUCN, prepared by UNEP-WCMC, supported by IUCN WCPA and working with Governments, the Secretariats of MEAs and collaborating NGOs. For further information

Download references


Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB) and OCP Policy Center are gratefully acknowledged for organising and funding the workshop for which this paper was produced. All data providers are acknowledged for making the results of their research available to the scientific community.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Mark Mulligan.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Mulligan, M. Tropical agriculturalisation: scenarios, their environmental impacts and the role of climate change in determining water-for-food, locally and along supply chains. Food Sec. 7, 1133–1152 (2015).

Download citation


  • Agriculture
  • Land use change
  • Climate change
  • Conservation
  • Commodity
  • Tropical