Aim: Ecosystems face numerous well-documented threats from climate change. The well-being of people also is threatened by climate change, most prominently by reduced food security. Human adaptation to food scarcity, including shifting agricultural zones, will create new threats for natural ecosystems. We investigated how shifts in crop suitability because of climate change may overlap currently protected areas (PAs) and priority sites for PA expansion in South Africa. Predicting the locations of suitable climate conditions for crop growth will assist conservationists and decision-makers in planning for climate change.
Location: South Africa.
Methods: We modelled climatic suitability in 2055 for maize and wheat cultivation, two extensively planted, staple crops, and overlaid projected changes with PAs and PA expansion priorities.
Results: Changes in winter climate could make an additional 2 million ha of land suitable for wheat cultivation, while changes in summer climate could expand maize suitability by up to 3.5 million ha. Conversely, 3 million ha of lands currently suitable for wheat production are predicted to become climatically unsuitable, along with 13 million ha for maize. At least 328 of 834 (39%) PAs are projected to be affected by altered wheat or maize suitability in their buffer zones.
Main conclusions: Reduced crop suitability and food scarcity in subsistence areas may lead to the exploitation of PAs for food and fuel. However, if reduced crop suitability leads to agricultural abandonment, this may afford opportunities for ecological restoration. Expanded crop suitability in PA buffer zones could lead to additional isolation of PAs if portions of newly suitable land are converted to agriculture. These results suggest that altered crop suitability will be widespread throughout South Africa, including within and around lands identified as conservation priorities. Assessing how climate change will affect crop suitability near PAs is a first step towards proactively identifying potential conflicts between human adaptation and conservation planning.