MENU

Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

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/DreamstimeIgor Stevanovic/DreamstimeA 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.

Photo Credit: Igor Stevanovic/Dreamstime

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    God doesn't want man creating food at anything but full environmental cost.

  • Sevo||

    Why this surprises some suggests they really didn't think about it.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    I think the belief is that capitalistic factory farming (As if organic farming is not capitalistic) has total disregard for all environmental impact, and only searches for short term profiteering.

  • Zeb||

    Even if that's true, you still need to look at results, not intentions.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    I'm purely being a devil's advocate here.

  • Zeb||

    I assumed as much. But it's always worth saying.

  • ||

    Just to put a touch more nuance on the Devil's point - the belief is that capitalistic factory farming is all about maximizing short-term gains without considering whether the practices are sustainable, thus creating a short-term food glut that will be followed by a long-term food shortage.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Yes, and those same idiots who assume that all capitalists and property owners think of nothing but money never can figure out why property owners like to keep the property fit for long term production.

  • ||

    They don't have the same long-term stake that temporary holders of political office do.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Look, for most humans all that matters is belief. And belief, by definition, is irrational and only occasionally might align with objective truth. On the belief list of Things That are Bad, for today's woke progressive, we will always find corporate, industrial, capitalist, money-making, logical, etc. They just KNOW that the hippie chick at the farmers' market grows her carrots with love (and body hair), while Dole is busy raping the earth every day.

  • ||

    I'm often reminded of a just-too-perfect cover of some organic foodie magazine I saw some years back where some obviously very bourgie 30-ish woman with dirt all over her holding up one red pepper with a look of tremendous triumph and accomplishment on her face.

    I couldn't help but think, "man, if you put that much effort into one pepper that you're that triumphant about it, your farming practices are not sustainable simply because there can be no doubt you are going to die of starvation in the very near future."

  • Zeb||

    The thing is that you do get really good produce when you put that kind of effort into it.

    The problem is that bourgie folk who think it's great and can afford to pay for artisanal, hand picked, organic peppers think that the rest of the world shouldn't mind doing the same, or that it is something other than a luxury good.

  • ||

    ^ Exactly this.

  • ||

    By which I mean that the woman who worked so hard to get the single perfect pepper did so because she knew she had a steak from Whole Foods in the freezer.

  • Juice||

    steak from Whole Foods in the freezer

    IOW she ruined a steak from Whole Foods.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Maybe. I suspect we could put some dirt on a corporate-farmed red pepper from a plastic-wrapped multi-pack from Safeway, and most earth muffins could not tell it from the organic cosmic version.

    In any case, if each human has to spend 100% of their time growing food, who will make Youtube videos and do other important stuff?

  • JWatts||

    "Why this surprises some suggests they really didn't think about it."

    Well it's the same kind of people who have done everything in their power to stop nuclear power for the last 40 years and now they are worried about AGW. Cause and effect is not their strong point.

  • ||

    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.

    While I sympathize, I'm not gonna hold my breath.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    Then I hope you're buying carbon indulgences for your sins against mother gaia.

  • Ecoli||

    To many, environmentalism is a religion. They will NEVER turn away from their dogma, no matter what the science shows.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    And yet, many of them claim to "fucking love science." Funny how that works out.

  • Zeb||

    What they really love is cool color-enhanced photos.

  • Cynical Asshole||

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Is it "fucking love science" or "love fucking science"?

  • Zeb||

    Those are two different groups.

  • Jerry B.||

    Nature Sustainability is gonna be getting angry letters.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Electronic or paper?

  • ||

    Vellum.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    Vellum is animal skin. The eviromentalists will hate that even more than normal paper.

  • Zeb||

    What if it's human skin?

  • Earth Skeptic||

    What color?

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Smoke signals.

  • Shirley Knott||

    Neo-Malthusians don't care. "We're gonna run out" is unfalsifiable, and tough for the "all resources are limited" crowd to fight.

  • CE||

    But "we're gonna run out of X by year Y" has been falsified many, many times.

  • rxc||

    The same sorts of arguments are made about implementing socialist governments - "We will do it the right way, next time, and the time after that, and the time after that..."

  • Daniel||

    I remember the organic movement being driven more by anti-chemical warriors with the idea that pesticides and herbicides were unhealthy. Environmentalist got on board as ****cides were bad for the environment as well.

    The idea that organic farming required more land and resources was well known from the beginning of the organic movement but must have been an acceptable byproduct to the advocates.

  • esteve7||

    We've known this from the beginning, but the Luddites and ideologues don't care. Just like how freedom leads to prosperity and socialism leads to misery and mass murder, but the leftists don't care about that.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    This seems like it should be common sense. Did they really have to do a study to figure this out?

    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.

    B-b-but... MONSANTO!!1!111!!!!!

  • Libertymike||

    Did you cry at Monsanto's funereal?

  • mtrueman||

    Do you think the study has any relevance to fish farming? Fish farming also involves spacial concentration and intensive use of chemical supplements, anti-biotics, growth hormones and the like. The argument seems similar to me, leave the vast oceans to mother nature and intensively cultivate heavy concentrations of the fishy food source, with the city limits if we can swing it.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Eat more bugs.

  • JFree||

    Kind of misses the main risk with monoculture. Our complete dependence on five grasses (wheat, rice, millet, maize, rye); three tubers (cassava, potato, yam) and one tree fruit (plaintain). They are already being grown on the most productive land for them - with generally intensive fertilizer.

    As long as it all works, it works. The day it stops - look out.

  • ||

    Our complete dependence on five grasses

    Your complete list of 5 grasses is woefully incomplete.

    We do have large, continent spanning "monocultures". Several different ones on each continent. Sometimes more than one per season on each continent.

  • mtrueman||

    Maize means corn. Corn is the most heavily consumed grain.

    Farmers in Vietnam's Mekong delta manage to rake off 7 harvests of rice every two years.

  • ||

    You claim monoculture which isn't monoculture as you cite grasses, tubers, and fruits and, further, each of your classes is artificially narrow.

    Barley, oats, sorghum, cane, bamboo routinely rise into your top 5 or are perpetually grown as abundantly as your top 5 just not always for human feedstocks. You cite cassava as a top tuber and for some reason cite plaintain and nothing else as a fruit even though the world production of apples routinely exceeds plantain and cassava crops. You completely ignore soy.

    You selectively narrow the your view of reality and then fret about the few options you have. You're a moron.

  • mtrueman||

    Doesn't monoculture just mean one crop growing in one largish place, like a field of corn or wheat? I'm surprised that you consider bamboo to be such an important food source. I'm surrounded by luxurious bamboos in the garden, and never eat the stuff. How much, if any, do you eat?

  • ||

    Doesn't monoculture just mean one crop growing in one largish place, like a field of corn or wheat?

    I've eaten shoots on occasion. Luxurious fields of corn and soy around me, I don't eat much of them either. At least not directly.

  • newshutz||

    JFree, It won't stop all at once. We have different varieties of most of those crops. And there are other staple crops like Manioc that can be developed.

  • JWatts||

    "Our complete dependence on five grasses (wheat, rice, millet, maize, rye); three tubers (cassava, potato, yam) and one tree fruit (plaintain)."

    That's obviously wrong in a technical sense and isn't particularly correct in a general sense. We are not completely dependent on those 9 foods. Furthermore, corn and soybeans are both huge crops not included in that list.

  • CE||

    and one tree fruit (plaintain).

    You do realize that mangoes are the number one fruit in the world, right?

  • CE||

    Seems like you left out oats, onions, beans, peas, etc.

  • Paloma||

    Everybody will have to go Keto.

  • Sevo||

    JFree|9.20.18 @ 2:20PM|#
    "Kind of misses the main risk with monoculture. Our complete dependence on five grasses (wheat, rice, millet, maize, rye); three tubers (cassava, potato, yam) and one tree fruit (plaintain). They are already being grown on the most productive land for them - with generally intensive fertilizer.

    So tell us, oh gaia-preist, when are we going to perish for our sins?

  • mtrueman||

    "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."

    We don't need ten billion blimps. Using today's American calorie consumption as the ideal is ill conceived.

  • Zeb||

    It's not an ideal, it's a demonstration that it's possible to feed everyone more than adequately.

  • mtrueman||

    More than adequately is not a good thing. That's where obesity comes in.

  • Libertymike||

    Obesity?

    Are you talking Donna Simpson size?

    Or just a plain ole fattie?

  • ||

    More than adequately is not a good thing.

    Because you said so? Obese people are given the choice of stopping eating and giving up obesity every meal, every day. They choose to continue eating.

  • mtrueman||

    "They choose to continue eating.'

    Which makes it a good thing.

  • ||

    Which makes it a good thing.

    Again, you selectively narrow your options and come to the moronic conclusion. It doesn't have to be good or bad exclusively.

    It would be more entertaining if you weren't so obvious and terrible about it.

  • Sevo||

    "They choose to continue eating.'
    Which makes it a good thing."
    .
    truueman is an ignoramus

  • Jerryskids||

    It's like greed - you wanting more than I think you should have.

  • mtrueman||

    "It's like greed - you wanting more than I think you should have."

    It's more like gluttony. You don't get obese from wanting more than I think you should have.

  • ||

    You don't get obese from wanting more than I think you should have.

    People are obese, they want more than you think they should have, that's the situation you're complaining about. You're getting to be beyond moronic.

  • Libertymike||

    Actually, there are those like the aforesaid Donna Simpson who have found a way to monetize their obesity by establishing paid subscriptions to watch her eat.

    Don't you just love markets?

  • mtrueman||

    "You're getting to be beyond moronic."

    You misunderstand. I'm trying to point out the irony of an outfit devoted to sustainability using the diet of the world's most gluttonous, obesity prone population as a yardstick. Sorry I didn't try to make that clearer earlier. If you want to revel in your obesity I have no objection.

  • CE||

    Greed isn't wanting more, it's wanting other peoples' stuff.
    You know, like socialists always wanting others peoples' stuff.

  • mtrueman||

    "Greed isn't wanting more, it's wanting other peoples' stuff."

    That's envy you're thinking about. Greed is wanting more. Be happy in your obesity.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    No, they are victims, victims I say!

    We must do something to help these poor people!

  • Zeb||

    No, it's better than marginally adequate. Too much food is a good problem to have.

  • mtrueman||

    " Too much food is a good problem to have."

    I think I got it. 20kgs underweight - bad problem. 20 kgs overweight - good problem. That it?

  • Gilbert Martin||

    "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."

    They are only "considered" that by those whose primary concern is social signaling and affectations of moral superiority and not any actual substantive reason.

  • Uncle Jay||

    Well then we can't have that.
    We must have a much worse environmental farming.
    Otherwise the EPA might go extinct.
    Then where will these overpaid and under-worked bureaucrats be?
    Working in the for-profit, capitalist, must-produce-or-leave, private sector?

  • Stephen Lathrop||

    Check the link to the paper. The OP misrepresents what the paper reports. Critically, the paper explicitly assumes that with more intensive farming, and higher yields, unfarmed land will be sequestered, and returned to natural condition. No mechanism in the visible part of the paper (the intro) is offered to show how that might be accomplished. It's a pipedream combining limited agriculture with mandated hyper-conservation, in a mix which has not even been approximated anywhere in the world.

    Won't stop Reason's commenters from misinforming themselves with utmost assurance.

  • Sevo||

    Stephen Lathrop|9.20.18 @ 4:53PM|#
    "Check the link to the paper. The OP misrepresents what the paper reports. Critically, the paper explicitly assumes that with more intensive farming, and higher yields, unfarmed land will be sequestered, and returned to natural condition. No mechanism in the visible part of the paper (the intro) is offered to show how that might be accomplished. It's a pipedream combining limited agriculture with mandated hyper-conservation, in a mix which has not even been approximated anywhere in the world."
    Which is totally irrelevant. No surprised coming from Blather, Inc.
    It is not required to grow food; that can be done industrially with less use of land now and in the future.

    "Won't stop Reason's commenters from misinforming themselves with utmost assurance."
    Didn't stop you from making an ass of yourself. Again.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    You can, of course, explain how less efficient farming requiring more land will definitely be no worse than more efficient and productive farming. Then there is the reality of reforestation in the US (and Europe):

    In the United States, deforestation has been more than offset by reforestation between 1990 and 2010. The nation added 7,687,000 hectares (18,995,000 acres) of forested land during that period.

    Now what were you saying about no mechanism for returning farmland to pre-farming condition, or at a minimum a return to a managed forest condition which provides far better habitat than food crop fields.

    Won't stop Reason's commenters from misinforming themselves with utmost assurance.

    Above written by a Reason commenter.

  • Peacedog||

    The people who fail to realize this are always the same imbeciles who know nothing about agriculture.

    The idea that a bunch of anti-capitalist hippie farmers are going to feed a civilization of billions is insane.

    It's always the same, the crowd of animal rights activists who are mad at ranchers, despite the fact that same group of vegans have never spent a day of their lives working around livestock.

    The real issue is that when fewer than 1% of the population are involved in an activity crucial to the survival of the other 99%, the other 99% get delusional ideas about how everything should work.

    Just ask a soldier or a businessman.

  • mtrueman||

    "Just ask a soldier or a businessman."

    About agriculture? Why not just ask a farmer or horticulturalist?

  • mtrueman||

    "we come to understand that choices we make based on the emotional need to be fashionable so often are the worst possible choice."

    Like when I wore my baseball cap sideways.

  • BILKER||

    " ideological environmentalists " should be stunned that every food product has been GMO'd since its' first inclusion to the edible list. Making it grow bigger, faster, better tasting, more resistant to disease and insects has been done for centuries. These enviro-nazis are just advocating a religion. For example the lowly meal worm. A very good bait for panfish BTW. There is more nutrition in mealworms existing at this moment in time than there is in all the kale ever grown. So why are we not feeding on the mealworms?

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online