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KNOXVILLE — Agricultural expansion could threaten the environment as much as climate change over the next 50 years, a University of Tennessee ecologist says in the current issue of the journal Science.

Dr. Daniel Simberloff, who holds UT’s Nancy Gore Hunger Chair of Excellence in Environmental Studies, co-authors the article forecasting dire environmental effects of nitrogen dissemination, pesticide use and natural habitat destruction from agriculture.

In a recent interview, Simberloff said increases in nitrogen compounds in the air, nitrates in food and heavy use of chemical pesticides are dangerous to human, animal and plant life.

“We-re using resources in a way that-s not sustainable,” Simberloff said. “We can-t keep dumping nitrogen and phosphorous and pesticides into the environment at the current rates.

“People worry about getting cancer because of the diminished ozone layer, but they-re more likely to get it from eating foods contaminated by pesticides.”

Simberloff based his forecast on an anticipated 50 percent rise in world population and continuation of agricultural trends of the past 35 years.

Destruction of natural habitats is the number one cause of species extinction, he said.

“Climate changes have gotten all the press,” Simberloff said. “No species is endangered right now by climate changes. More than a thousand species in the United States are endangered by habitat destruction.”

Solutions to problems posed by agriculturally driven global environmental change are “not technologically remarkable,” Simberloff said.

“We could treat waste better. We could use fertilizer in a more pinpoint fashion and use integrated pest management instead of scheduled spraying. We could use fewer pesticides at lower volumes.

“If we did all of this, it would have a big impact.”

Simberloff, a professor in UT’s department of ecology and evolutionary biology, also co-authored “Strangers in Paradise: Impact and Management of Nonindigenous Species in Florida.”