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Could intensive agriculture be better for the environment than organic eco-farming?

PUBLISHED: 12:50 24 September 2018 | UPDATED: 13:11 24 September 2018

A combine harvester at work at Thrigby. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

A combine harvester at work at Thrigby. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Archant

Intensive “land-efficient” agriculture could be better for the environment than eco-friendly or organic farming, according to East Anglian researchers.

A new study, led by scientists from the University of Cambridge, says focusing resources to generate higher yields from smaller areas might be the “least bad” option to meet rising demand for food – as long as it allows more natural habitats to be “spared the plough”.

Agriculture which appears to be more eco-friendly, but uses more land, may actually have greater environmental costs per unit of food than high-yield farming, said researchers.

The study, published in the journal Nature Sustainability, suggests that – contrary to perceptions – intensive agriculture which uses less land may also produce fewer pollutants, cause less soil erosion and consume less water.

“Agriculture is the most significant cause of biodiversity loss on the planet,” said study lead author Andrew Balmford, professor of conservation 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 plough.”

The Cambridge scientists conducted the study with a research team from 17 organisations across the UK and around the globe, including colleagues from Poland, Brazil, Australia, Mexico and Colombia.

Examples of high-yield strategies include enhanced pasture systems and livestock breeds in beef production, use of chemical fertiliser on crops, and keeping dairy cows indoors for longer.

But the study says high-yield farming must be combined with mechanisms to limit agricultural expansion and prevent further conversion of wilderness to farmland if it is to have any environmental benefit. These could include strict land-use zoning and restructured rural subsidies.

“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 Prof Balmford.

“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.”

Conservation expert and co-author Dr David Edwards, from the University of Sheffield, added: “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.”

• What do you think of the study’s findings? Contact chris.hill@archant.co.uk.

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