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High-Yield Farming--Is It the Future?

I recently accessed an article authored by a group of scientists from the United Kingdom, Mexico, Australia, Brazil, Poland, and Colombia. The article, titled “The Environmental Costs and Benefits of High-Yield Farming” by Balmford et al., appears in Nature Sustainability, Vol. 1, p. 477-485, Sept. 2018. The title intrigued me, so I decided to determine how the subject matter might be interpreted in relation to the future of agriculture.

Rather than me summarizing the results presented in the above article, I provide the below quotes from a summary that was composed by the University of Cambridge (click here for that summary) to ensure that I am conveying the details about and findings from the study as presented in that summary article.

“Scientists have put together measures for some of the major ‘externalities’–such as greenhouse gas emission, fertilizer and water use–generated by high- and low-yield farm systems, and compared the environmental costs of producing a given amount of food in different ways. Previous research compared these costs by land area. As high-yield farming needs less land to produce the same quantity of food, the study’s authors say this approach (by land area) overestimates its environmental impact.”

“The Cambridge scientists conducted the study with a research team from 17 organizations across the UK and around the globe, including colleagues from Poland, Brazil, Australia, Mexico, and Colombia. The study analyzed information from hundreds of investigations into four vast food sectors, accounting for large percentages of the global output for each product: Asian paddy rice (90%), European wheat (33%), Latin American beef (23%), and European dairy (53%). Examples of high-yield strategies include enhanced pasture systems and livestock breeds in beef production, use of chemical fertilizer on crops, and keeping dairy cows indoors for longer.”

“Their results from the four major agricultural sectors suggest that, contrary to many people’s perceptions, more intensive agriculture that uses less land may also produce fewer pollutants, cause less soil loss, and consume less water. However, the team behind the study, led by scientists from the University of Cambridge, caution that if higher yields are simply used to increase profit or lower prices, they will only accelerate the extinction crisis we are already seeing.”

“ ‘Agriculture is the most significant cause of biodiversity loss on the planet,” said study lead author Andrew Balmford, Professor of Convervation Science from Cambridge’s Department of Zoology. ‘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. However, if we are to avert mass extinction it is vital that land-efficient agriculture is linked to more wilderness being spared the plow.’ ”

“Conservation expert and co-author Dr. David Edwards, from the University of Sheffield, said: ‘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 scientists found data to be limited, and say more research is urgently needed on the environmental cost of different farming systems. Nevertheless, results suggest many high-yield systems are less ecologically damaging and, crucially, use much less land.”

“ ‘These results add to the evidence that sparing natural habitats by using high-yield farming to produce food is the least bad way forward,’ added Balmford.”

Take-Home Message

There is the perception that increased food production on present farmland will result in overuse of the resources needed for this increased production. The above results from this robust meta-analysis do not support this.

According to Merrill and Leatherby (Here’s How America Uses Its Land, Bloomberg, July 2018), the US is becoming more urban at an average rate of about 1 million additional acres per year (equivalent to size of Los Angeles, Houston, and Phoenix combined). These acres are often taken from present farmland or land suited for agriculture. Regrettably, reclaiming these acres for agricultural use cannot or will not occur; thus, they are forever lost for the purpose of food production. This, coupled with the results from the meta-analysis cited above, indicates that increased crop/food production on currently farmed land in the world should be the major source of increased food production.

Much has been written about the need to increase food production to feed a growing world population, which is projected to increase from the current 7.6 billion to 9.75 billion by 2050 (Roser, 2018, Future Population Growth, To do this, the following enhancements to crop plants/crop production on present farmland should be explored and/or developed to attain higher yields.

•   Enhancement of nitrogen-fixing capability of leguminous crop plants;

•   Development of drought-tolerant crop cultivars and varieties;

•   Increased water use efficiency of crop cultivars and varieties;;

•   Development/enhancement of insect- and disease-tolerant crop cultivars and varieties;

•   Enhancement of nutritional qualities of crops used for both human food and animal feed;

•   Continued development of crop plants that are tolerant to herbicides used for weed management in crop production; and

•   Development of crop cultivars and varieties that withstand environmental stresses that reduce both yield and quality of harvested product.

Composed by Larry G. Heatherly, Oct. 2018,