Intensive farming may be saving the planet, not destroying it
It's been long held that agrochemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides are wreaking havoc on our planet ... but could they actually be helping?
Wed, Jun 16 2010 at 1:39 PM
Photo: ZUMA Press
Employing the use of pesticides, fertilizers, soil degradation and the emergence of super weeds are all part of the evil that is intensive farming, which is also fueling the fire of global warming — right? According to NewScientist, intensive farming may actually be slowing global warming.
“Steven Davis of the Carnegie Institution of Washington in Palo Alto, Calif., and colleagues calculated how much greenhouse gases would have been emitted over the past half-century if the green revolution had not happened.The study included carbon dioxide and other gases such as methane emitted by rice paddies. It found that, overall, the intensification of farming helped keep the equivalent of 600 billion tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere — roughly a third of all human greenhouse-gas emissions between 1850 and 2005.”
The study indicates that in addition to the avoided emissions, intensive farming is preserving the world's forests. The increased crop yields through the promotion of hybrid varieties with higher yields coupled with widespread use of pesticides and fertilizers mean more food can be produced without needing to cut down additional forests to make room for farmland.
The production of all those fertilizers and pesticides does increase greenhouse gas emissions, but Davis says, “We show that these and other direct emissions from agriculture are outweighed by the indirect emissions avoided by leaving unmanaged lands as they are.”
According to Helmut Haberl of Klagenfurt University in Vienna, Austria, the study fails to acknowledge other societal and environmental harm that results from intensive farming. Many of those adverse side effects are the typical arguments given by those against intensification — toxic effects of pesticides on farm workers, animal suffering, loss of biodiversity, etc.
Haberl isn’t alone in his criticism of Davis’ study. David Pimentel of Cornell University in New York, an author on organic agriculture, disagrees as well.
Pimentel and his team conducted a 22-year experiment in which they showed that organically produced maize and soybeans generated yields equal to that of conventional agricultural — while consuming 30 percent less energy from fossil fuels and doubling the amount of carbon in the soil.
"This paper makes an impressive case that agricultural intensification was a key process allowing for increases in food supply while limiting the area required for food production," Haberl says. He goes on to say, “It shows that agricultural intensification can have positive environmental effects, along with its well-known downside."