Some years ago, it became trendy to favor high density living, with less sprawl and more urban-apartment-lifestyles, due to ecological benefits. By keeping people together in less space, more space is available for the non-human species. Evidence also suggests a lower environmental footprint, although Lloyd points out that the movement must target a Goldilocks density (not too much, not too little, just right).
But common lore in the green community still holds that modern agricultural techniques increase pollution run-off, greenhouse gas emissions, and soil loss. Now researchers are turning common sense about the sustainability of traditional farming methods versus high-yield farming on its head. Existing studies may have overstated the benefits of traditional methods by evaluating the impact relative to the acreage in use rather than to the unit of food produced.
A team of researchers led by Andrew Balmford of the University of Cambridge - and including scientists from 17 organisations in the UK, Poland, Brazil, Australia, Mexico and Colombia - analyzed key environmental aspects of farming methods. A co-author from the University of Sheffield, Dr David Edwards, notes:
“Organic systems are often considered to be far more environmentally friendly than conventional farming, but our work suggested the opposite. By using more land to produce the same yield, organic may ultimately accrue larger environmental costs."
The study focused on four sectors accounting for large percentages of the global production: Asian paddy rice (90%), European wheat (33%), Latin American beef (23%), and European dairy (53%). The meta-analysis considered hundreds of investigations. Unfortunately, many studies of agricultural performance do not report consistent measures for the "externalities" such as water and fertilizer use or greenhouse emissions.
In addition to the finding that high-yield agriculture may offer more benefits than merely profit and volume, the team reports two critical admonitions. First, we need more and better science on the give and take from farming approaches. Second, if their science is used only to support more intensive farming methods without equal weight given to protecting wildlife habitats and biodiversity, the wins from high-yield farming cannot be realized.
While the idyllic vision of old-fashioned farms might make us think there is more balance with nature in history than in technology, this research proves the need for better science quantifying environmental performance, and the even greater need for good agricultural policy.
The full article is behind a paywall: The environmental costs and benefits of high-yield farming