Cambridge study sheds new light on high-yield farming

23 September 2018

Intensive agriculture may not be as damaging to the environment as previously thought, say a team of Cambridge researchers.
Georgina Hines

A study of four agriculture sectors has revealed that the effects of intensive agriculture on the environment – greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution and soil erosion to name a few – could be overestimated compared to more eco-friendly techniques.

Previous research compared the environmental effects of high- and low-yield farming systems but did not account for the relatively small amount of land used by high-yield farming for the same amount of food.
Instead, the team from the University of Cambridge, UK, measured the environmental impact of the two techniques per unit of food. They found that intensive agriculture produced less pollutants, caused less soil loss and consumed less water than previously assumed.

‘Agriculture is the most significant cause of biodiversity loss on the planet,’ said Andrew Balmford, lead author of the study and Professor of Conservation Science at Cambridge. ‘Habitats are continuing to be cleared to make way for farmland, leaving ever less space for wildlife.’

‘Our results suggest that high-yield farming could be harnessed to meet the growing demand for food without destroying more of the natural world,’ he said. ‘However, if we are to avert mass extinction it is vital that land-efficient agriculture is linked to more wilderness being spared the plough.’

The study says more research is needed in the area, and high-yield farming should not be used solely for more profit and needs to be combined with mechanisms that limit agricultural expansion if it is to maintain a low environmental impact.

Balmford noted: ‘These results add to the evidence that sparing natural habitats by using high-yield farming to produce food is the least bad way forward.

‘Where agriculture is heavily subsidised, public payments could be contingent on higher food yields from land already being farmed, while other land is taken out of production and restored as natural habitat for wildlife and carbon or floodwater storage.’

DOI: 10.1038/s41893-018-0138-5

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