Is intensive farming best for the environment?

04 October 2018

Intensive agriculture
Image: soil-science.info

If you’re talking to anyone who actively campaigns on, or who even just cares about, sustainable food one principle is rarely argued - that standard approaches to food production are all wrong, and we need something else to make it better. Organic. Or Vegan. Or small-scale farming.

One thing I’ve learned in life is that there are many complex problems to which there are intuitive and obvious answers that happen to be wrong. So it’s not enough to have an intuition, we need to know what problem we’re trying to solve, what existing benefits we don’t want to break in so doing, and what data exists to support a route to success.

So let’s define the problem. We do optimistically expect the human populations to stop growing, but at astonishingly unprecedented numbers - something like 10 billion people. All those people need to be fed. At the same time, we depend upon natural systems. Climate change. Soil erosion. Biodiversity loss. There are very good reasons why we need to achieve the goal without breaking these key supports of life on planet Earth.

Given how important that is, you would think that we would have a pretty good idea of the impact of the various forms of food production open to us. We would have identified and quantified the ‘externalities’ - the cost of producing food in terms of emissions, soil loss, and biodiversity loss. It turns out, we have remarkably little data on this. That rather makes it impossible to have a sensible discussion about it.

A recent academic study came to the surprising conclusion that more intensive agriculture may be the least bad option for feeding the world. It comes with a caveat. It’s not a proposal in favour of current business-as-usual - intensive farming has to be matched with more focused and deliberate protection of rich habitats and wilderness. Changes in practices will be needed - it just won’t necessarily look like the solution we thought it was going to.

I find that an interesting study - let’s be honest - because it supported what I’ve said here before - sustainable food will be an evolution of what we currently do today, and it won’t be some perfect problem-free utopian vision For me that seems - um, intuitive and obvious. So maybe it’s wrong. Hence, we need data and a lack of preconceptions.

So the researchers involved put together measures of at least some of the major externalities, including greenhouse gas emissions, water use and fertiliser use, for each of the different high and low yield farming systems. Previous research had compared these impacts by land area - an approach that made the more intensive approaches seem much higher impact. But if done, instead, on quantity of food produced, the story is very different. Arguably, that is at least as relevant a measure. 

They found that high-yield production could actually produce food at a lower overall environmental cost. 

This was a big study, looking at information from hundreds of investigations into food sectors that contribute significantly to current food consumption - Asian rice, European wheat, Latin American beef and European dairy. In doing so, of course, it was looking at the most efficient way to meet current consumption patterns. Of course, it’s possible that these change over time. Particularly with a shift towards reduced levels of meat eating. However, the lessons remain important in principle in the face of such evolutions since less meat means more grain and other plant-based foods.

One finding I did find surprising, I must admit, was that in the European dairy sector, organic systems caused one third more soil loss for the same amount of milk as conventional systems. This was probably as a result of taking up twice as much land. I had certainly assumed that organic systems replenished soils more effectively than that conclusion suggests.

What they did find, though, was that across the board data is limited when it comes to the full costs of different approaches to producing food. More research is urgently needed. That seems to be a pretty remarkable state of affairs given where we are. That is surely research that should be underway.

All in all, it would probably be good to put aside ideological fixations when it comes to proposing solutions on sustainable food, and focus more on truly understanding (a) what is the data telling us (b) what new information do we need and (c) what can be practically done with the information, working with people and societies the way they are, and not the way we’d like them to be?