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Keywords:

  • Argentine agriculture;
  • cultivation boundaries;
  • environmental impacts;
  • fluxes;
  • stocks

Abstract

Agriculture expanded during the last 50 years from the Pampas to NW Argentina at the expense of natural forests and rangelands. In parallel, productivity was boosted through the increasing application of external inputs, modern technology and management practices. This study evaluated the impact of agricultural expansion between 1960 and 2005 by assessing the implications of land use, technology and management changes on (i) carbon (C), nitrogen (N) and phosphorous (P) stocks in soil and biomass, (ii) energy, C, N, P and water fluxes and (iii) water pollution, soil erosion, habitat intervention and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (impacts). Based on different data sources, these issues were assessed over∼1.5 million km2 (63% of Argentina), involving 399 political districts during three representative periods: 1956–1960, 1986–1990 and 2001–2005. The ecological and environmental performance of 1197 farming system types was evaluated through the AgroEcoIndex model, which quantified the stocks, fluxes and impacts mentioned above. Cultivation of natural ecosystems and farming intensification caused a noticeable increase of productivity, a strengthening of energy flux, an opening of matter cycles (C, N, P) and a negative impact on habitats and GHGs emission. However, due to the improved tillage practices and the application of less aggressive pesticides, erosion and pollution risk are today lower than those of the mid-20th century. The consistency of some assumptions and results were checked through uncertainty analysis. Comparing our results with international figures, some impacts (e.g. soil erosion, nutrient balance, energy use) were less significant than those recorded in intensive-farming countries like China, Japan, New Zealand, USA, or those of Western Europe, showing that farmers in Argentina developed the capacity to produce under relatively low-input/low-impact schemes during the last decades. [Correction added after online publication 4 October 2010: In the first sentence of the Abstract, NE was corrected to NW.]