New research has shown intensive agriculture which uses less land may also produce fewer pollutants, cause less soil loss and consume less water.
These were the findings of a major study led by the University of Cambridge, which looked at four agricultural sectors.
The researchers said agriculture which appeared to be more eco-friendly but used more land may actually have greater environmental costs per unit of food than ‘high-yield’ farming.
This type of farming was also leaving ‘ever less space’ for wildlife, they added.
In European organic dairy farming, for example, organic systems producing the same amount of milk as conventional caused at least one third more soil loss and took up twice as much land.
Conservation expert and co-author of the study David Edwards from the University of Sheffield said: “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.”
The report said there was ‘mounting evidence’ to suggest the best way to meet rising food demand while conserving biodiversity was to wring as much food as sustainably possible from the land already farmed – something previously criticised because of claims it boosted disproportionate levels of pollution, water scarcity and soil erosion.
The university’s studies found high-yield systems in Poland, Brazil, Australia, Mexico and Columbia to be less ecologically damaging.
The researchers analysed information from hundreds of investigations into four food sectors, accounting for large percentages of the global output for each product: Asian paddy rice (90 per cent), European wheat (33 per cent), Latin American beef (23 per cent), and European dairy (53 per cent).
The scientists said more research was ‘urgently needed’ on the environmental cost of different farming systems.
Study lead author Andrew Balmford, Professor of conservation science from Cambridge’s department of zoology, said: “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.”