High Yield Modern Farming Better for the Environment, Says Nature Study

Low yield organic farming uses up lots more land and harms biodiversity


Igor Stevanovic/Dreamstime

A new study in Nature Sustainability reports that "[e]xtensive field data suggest that impacts on wild populations would be greatly reduced through boosting yields on existing farmland so as to spare remaining wild habitats." Basically, producing more food on less land is really good for the environment because farmers will plow up fewer forests and prairies, thus leaving more land for nature.

To come to this conclusion, the team of researchers associated with Cambridge University analyzed the effects on the natural environment of Asian paddy rice, European wheat cultivation, Latin American beef, and European dairy production. They measured the impacts of these four agricultural sectors on greenhouse gas emissions, water use, nitrogen and phosphorus fertililzation, and soil losses.

Among other intriguing results, the study found that, for the same amount of milk, organic systems caused at least one third more soil loss and took up twice as much land as conventional dairy farming.

"Organic systems are often considered to be far more environmentally friendly than conventional farming, but our work suggested the opposite," said study co-author Dr. David Edwards in the Cambridge press release on the study. "By using more land to produce the same yield, organic may ultimately accrue larger environmental costs."

Well, yes.

The Nature Sustainability study bolsters the analysis of Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station agronomist Paul Waggoner in his brilliantly perspicacious 1997 article, "How Much Land Can Ten Billion People Spare for Nature?" Waggoner concluded, "If during the next sixty to seventy years the world farmer reaches the average yield of today's U.S. corn grower, the ten billion will need only half of today's cropland while they eat today's American calories."

More recently, Waggoner and Rockefeller University researchers Jesse Ausubel and Iddo Wernick argued that humanity is approaching "peak farmland." Due to ever greater agricultural production efficiency, the three researchers concluded, "Now we are confident that we stand on the peak of cropland use, gazing at a wide expanse of land that will be spared for nature."

One can hope that this Nature Sustainability article will help to persuade at least some ideological environmentalists who claim to that they want to protect and preserve the natural world to drop their opposition to the use of modern farming technologies to produce more food on less land.