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Smarter Farming (and Eating) to Save the World

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 20, 2016

(Photo: Chris Winsor/Getty Images)

(Photo: Chris Winsor/Getty Images)

My latest for Takepart.com:

You probably don’t think agricultural intensification could ever be a good thing. And you certainly wouldn’t expect an argument for more of it in a column about wildlife. But here’s the deal: If we don’t figure out how to grow more food on less land, we’re going to have to plow under what little remains of the natural world and turn it into farmland.

And we have to figure it out fast, because there are going to be 10 billion people to feed by mid-century. The way we grow food now, that won’t leave enough room at all for creatures from ants to elephants—or for the plants with which they have coevolved over the history of the Earth.

The answer, according to a lot of agricultural experts, is sustainable intensification. Basically it means growing more food on less land, but doing so with minimal environmental damage. And it’s arguably even more important than the usual conservation strategy of creating national parks and other protected natural areas.

“If we want to save biodiversity in the world,” said G. David Tilman, an ecologist at the University of Minnesota, “the most important thing is not to buy a piece of land and put a fence around it but to help farmers feed their families—and feed other families.” He’s talking mostly about farmers in the developing world, where population growth is highest, the clearing of land most problematic for biodiversity, and the productivity of farmland often dismally low. “If we can’t get higher yields, these people will and should clear more land,” Tilman added. “It is their moral obligation to feed their families.”

So what does sustainable intensification involve? Given that “sustainable” is one of the least meaningful, most overused words in the English language, it’s predictably a controversial issue. For instance, some experts argue that feeding a larger population requires judicious use of genetically modified crops because they yield more food on less land, with fewer environmentally destructive inputs such as pesticides and herbicides. Others protest that GMO crops are almost by definition controlled by large agribusiness at the expense of small farmers. Fields of GMO crops also tend to result in agricultural monocultures with no room for monarch butterflies and other species dependent on the weeds that inevitably occur in conventionally farmed fields.

That, in turn, leads to the debate about whether land sharing (encouraging wildlife on the farm) is the best way forward, or whether we should concentrate instead on land sparing (getting maximum yield from existing farmland so farmers don’t have to expand into natural areas).

One thing that is not debated: Sustainable intensification certainly means that farmers in the developed world need to reduce their catastrophic overuse of fertilizers. The current practice of dumping nitrogen fertilizer on fields and allowing it to run off into nearby rivers and streams kills those water bodies and creates vast “dead zones” where fish and other marine wildlife cannot live.

It should be relatively easy to fix: Farmers in industrial nations like the U.S. now typically add fertilizer before they even plant a crop. “Half of it leaches away, because the plants don’t even have full root systems till two months later,” said Tilman. If they waited instead to fertilize when the plants are a foot tall, they could get the same yield with half the fertilizer. That happened in a 2009 study in China, where overuse of fertilizer is also a problem.

What would it take to get farmers to change fertilizing tactics? In this country, 30 years of hand-wringing about the Gulf Coast “dead zone” has changed nothing. In fact, levels of nitrogen and phosphorous runoff in the Mississippi River have actually increased. U.S. farmers continue to pile on fertilizer basically because they don’t have to pay for the damage they cause downstream—and because we let them. Meanwhile, a regulatory mandate in the European Union has produced a 30 percent reduction in nitrogen use with an equivalent increase in yield. But don’t look to Congress or the U.S. Department of Agriculture for help. Instead, it may take a lawsuit to force a change. The city of Des Moines, Iowa, is now suing to get upstream farmers to pay for polluting city water and imposing major filtration costs.

The sustainable intensification debate has all kinds of implications for the future of life on Earth. You can find out more here and here. Getting more fertilizer to farmers in developing nations is one priority that a casual reader might not expect. You can look into that side of story here. Food waste is another.

I don’t have room here to get into all the changes needed to achieve sustainable intensification. But let’s just leave it with one issue where we can all make a difference. I have to start with a full disclosure: I ate a hamburger for dinner last night. I love hamburgers. But limiting that to, say, one hamburger a month and cutting back on meat consumption in general is the simplest way to free up existing land for food crops. That’s because, under our current system, an incredible 75 percent of all arable land worldwide is now reserved for pastures or crops used in the production of meat. Change that, and we’d never have to plow under another acre of natural habitat anywhere in the world ever again.

5 Responses to “Smarter Farming (and Eating) to Save the World”

  1. Nancy said

    Reblogged this on "OUR WORLD".

  2. Yes, I saw this. I particularly liked that last paragraph – and the last sentence!

  3. UPDATE: Intensive farming in the tropics could require huge phosphorus ‘tax’

    Posted: 18 Apr 2016 09:03 AM PDT
    From the Amazon to Africa, tropical regions are widely expected to play a growing role in supplying food to the world. With global population on the rise, many policy experts and conservationists see agricultural intensification as a winning strategy to produce more food per acre while sparing tropical forests from being converted to farmland. Just pour on the fertilizer. But a new analysis shows that if tropical farming intensifies, there could be a staggering cost: millions of tons of phosphorus ‘tax’ that must be paid to the soil. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/04/160418120329.htm

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