Recently, a group of researchers, writers and activists calling themselves "ecomodernists" caused a stir by claiming we need to decouple from nature, not go back to it. The central thrust of their argument was that instead of seeking low-impact, low-tech paths to sustainable living "on the land," they proposed we embrace technology, move to the city and generally use innovation and modernization to reduce our footprint and allow nature to regenerate on its own.
It's an interesting argument.
We already know that moving to the city can reduce your carbon footprint. And high-tech, soilless farming is certainly gaining a foothold. But where the argument is likely to raise more hackles is how we approach the mainstream farms where most of our food is grown. A recent study in the journal Nature & Climate Change, by Anthony Lamb et al., proposes "land sparing" as a strategy to slash agricultural greenhouse gas emissions in the United Kingdom.
As reported over at Business Green, the basic idea would be to increase yields significantly — through better farming practices and, in some cases, higher inputs of fertilizer and irrigation — it would be possible to return agricultural land to forests, and restore wet peatlands, to such a great extent that it would cut overall emissions from the sector by as much as 80 percent. And while supporters of organic agriculture may cry foul, the study's authors did factor in the greenhouse gas emissions required to produce fertilizers and other additional inputs.
Key to making a strategy like this work, of course, is making sure that "land sparing" actually takes place. If yields increase per acre, and yet the additional agricultural land either remains in production or does not get converted to high-value conservation habitats that sequester carbon, then there's little to gain from a strategy like this.
It would also be interesting to look at the ways that smart technology and holistic agro-ecological practices might boost yields. From the record-breaking yields reported by low input SRI rice farmers around the world to the spread of "smart" or "precision" agriculture, I suspect there are many ways we can use innovation to grow more food without simply resorting to "Green Revolution" strategies of widespread fertilizer and herbicide use.
Sometimes less is more, in more ways than one.