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Organic systems accrue larger environmental costs than conventional, says new research

This was the findings of four major agricultural sectors which said agriculture which appeared to be more eco-friendly but used more land may have greater environmental costs per unit of food than ‘high-yield’ farming.


Lauren   Dean

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Lauren   Dean
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Organic systems accrue larger environmental costs than conventional, says new research

New research has come out with controversial claims more intensive agriculture that uses less land may also produce fewer pollutants, cause less soil loss and consume less water.

 

This was the findings of four major agricultural sectors, led by the University of Cambridge, which said agriculture that appeared to be more eco-friendly but used more land may have greater environmental costs per unit of food than ‘high-yield’ farming.

 

One example was European organic dairy farming, where for the same amount of milk, organic systems caused at least one third more soil loss and took up twice as much land as conventional dairy farming.

 

Conservation expert and co-author 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.


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“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 over claims it boosted disproportionate levels of pollution, water scarcity and soil erosion.

 

But the university’s studies instead found examples of high-yield strategies in Poland, Brazil, Australia, Mexico and Columbia to be less ecologically damaging using ‘much less’ land.

 

Environmental cost

It analysed information from hundreds of investigations into four vast 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).

 

In field trials, inorganic nitrogen boosted yields with little to no greenhouse gas ‘penalty’ and lower water use per tonne of rice, while greenhouse gas emissions could be halved in some systems per tonne of beef where yields were boosted by adding trees to provide shade and forage for cattle.

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: “Agriculture is the most significant cause of biodiversity loss on the planet.

 

“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.”

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