Intensive farming: Ecologically sustainable?

Intensive farming.JPG

This article is part of our special report Agriculture.

As demand for food rises along with the world's population, policymakers are looking at ways of intensifying crop production while reducing the negative impact of farming on the environment.

Intensive agriculture uses high levels of complementary inputs such as irrigation, chemical fertilisers and pesticides to achieve maximum yields at the lowest possible cost.

In Europe and the United States, the post-war 'Green Revolution' saw fertilisers replace ancient soil management methods, while herbicides provided an alternative to crop rotations as a means of controlling weeds.

Industrial farming based on large-scale monocultures enabled a substantial increase in yields and a drop in food prices, ending centuries of famine and paving the way for rapid economic and social development.

However, with more and more land being cultivated, it is now recognised that production gains were accompanied by negative environment impacts, jeopardising the very future of agriculture as intensive farming methods put a strain on the natural resources upon which they rely.

Indeed, the list of negative effects of intensive farming seems to be getting longer: soil degradation, salination of irrigated areas, over-extraction and pollution of groundwater, resistance to pesticides, erosion of biodiversity, etc.

Agriculture has also damaged the environment at large by means of deforestation and the emission of greenhouse gases or other air pollutants.

Meanwhile, as the world's population continues to grow rapidly, international organisations such the United Nations have drawn attention to the need to increase food production significantly. But they stress that the increase needs to be achieved with less impact on the environment.

According to the European Commission, global agricultural production needs to be doubled by 2050 to feed the world. But at the same time, it says this will have to be done with less water and fewer pesticides and greenhouse gas emissions, amid growing competition for land.

The UN argues that between 2015 and 2030, an estimated 80% of the required food production increases will have to come from intensification and yield increases.

However, rates of yield growth for the major food crops – rice, wheat and maize – are all declining. Annual growth in wheat yields fell from 5% a year in 1980 to 2% in 2005, according to the UN. That of rice and maize fell from more than 3% to around 1% over the same period.

The OECD's (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) Agricultural Outlook 2011-2020 predicts that global agricultural production will grow at an average of 1.7% annually compared to 2.6% in the previous decade, while slower growth is expected for most crops.

The intensi?cation of agricultural production began with the 'Green Revolution' in the 1940s and 1950s, which prompted a substantial increase in yields and a decrease in food prices.

The intensi?cation of agricultural production began with the 'Green Revolution' in the 1940s and 1950s, which prompted a substantial increase in yields and a decrease in food prices.

While intensive farming methods were never celebrated for their environmental benefits, it is widely recognised that higher rates of productivity have helped to prevent more land from being used for crop production, saving forests and shrub land from conversion to cropland to feed a growing world population.

If the predictions of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) are correct and global demand for cereals does rise by 50% by 2030, the difference must be met by increasing yields from existing farmland, experts argue. Otherwise, more land will have to be converted into farmland.

As there is little land left for agriculture (discounting forests, which must be protected for many reasons), increasing yields from existing land seems the most desirable option. However, everybody agrees that any further intensification of crop production must be sustainable.

But the question remains: are both these objectives attainable at the same time?

Greening EU agriculture

In the EU, agricultural payouts are increasingly subject to environmental requirements. Environmental compliance schemes were first introduced, on a voluntary basis, in a year 2000 reform of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and became mandatory in 2003.

As of January 2005, farmers who receive the Single Farm Payment have had to comply with a series of environmental management requirements and various standards to ensure the "good agricultural and environmental condition" of farmland.

The European Commission believes the CAP's existing "green" measures are unlikely to halt the negative environmental effects of intensive farming practices and argues that more needs to be done.

The EU's future farm policy for the post-2013 era is set to have an increased focus on protecting biodiversity, promoting sustainable farming and achieving CO2 emission reduction goals. Under the proposals being considered in Brussels, 30% of the direct payments would be made conditional on 'green' measures.

'Producing more with less': New focus on R&D

Research is another point of focus in the Commission's proposed budget. While agricultural research has largely been ignored over the past 20-30 years, recent hikes in food prices have highlighted the need to "produce more with less" while simultaneously respecting the environment and adapting production to a changing climate.

EU agricultural research funding currently amounts to less than €2 billion over the seven-year period 2007-2013. But the Commission's proposal for the EU's 2014-2020 budget suggests doubling that amount. A total of €4.5 billion has been put on the table for "research and innovation on food security, the bio-economy and sustainable agriculture" in the bloc's next 'Common Strategic Framework for Research and Innovation', which starts in 2014.

In addition, a 'European Innovation Partnership (EIP) on sustainable and productive agriculture' is being prepared as part of the EU's 2020 strategy "to enhance productivity and efficiency, ensure sustainable resource management and support 'producing more with less'."

Greening agricultural practices

If Europe is only just awakening to the need for more agricultural research (with results expected only in the long term), measures to make farming more sustainable would appear to be more pressing.

Examples of short-term issues abound: the use of fossil fuel, fertilisers, water and pesticides in agricultural systems will need to be reduced, for example, to mitigate their environmental impact. All this must of course be achieved at the same time as increasing output.

  • Precision farming: Doing more with less

The twin goals of simultaneously meeting both environmental and productivity objectives do of course appear contradictory. But there are methods of achieving them without necessarily using more fertilisers or pesticides.

The potential of so-called 'precision agriculture' has been attracting political attention in Europe and elsewhere since the mid-1990s. Precision farming is a technique that allows farmers to better allocate inputs – such as seeds and fertilisers – to specific cropland areas based on soil type, fertility levels and other characteristics of a site.

A central objective is to increase yields while optimising the use of resources and reducing negative impacts on the environment.

Precision agriculture may also involve the use of advanced technology – including GPS, ICT, radar and sensors – to apply variable quantities of fertilisers and pesticides where they are the most needed. Examples include chlorophyll sensors to control nitrogen application.

Ensuring that fertiliser and pesticide applications meet the specific needs of the soil and crops on any given site could help improve water quality by bringing to an end overlaps and over-application of these substances, as well as reducing their surface run-off and leaching.

A 2009 EU directive on the sustainable use of pesticides seeks to minimise the risks posed by pesticides to human health and the environment. It asks member states to adopt Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices, which involve using a combination of natural predators and parasites as well as plant biotechnology along chemical measures to manage diseases, insects, weeds and other pests in agriculture.

Similarly, integrated soil fertility management combines the use of organic and inorganic fertilisers to increase yields, while at the same time seeking to improve the quality of depleted soils.

A recently published evaluation of the EU's 2003 Fertilisers Regulation remarked that current provisions do not fully address environmental concerns. The EU executive is therefore planning to adopt a proposal for a new regulation on fertilisers by the end of 2012.

  • Efficient water management, inter-cropping and vertical farming

Aside from optimising pesticide and fertiliser use, experts believe it is possible to reduce water use in agriculture by 30-50% by opting for sprinkler irrigation instead of flood irrigation.

Another immediately applicable solution is inter-cropping, which is the simultaneous growth of two or more crop species on the same land to make use of resources that would otherwise not be used by a single crop. Such farming practices can increase total yields per unit of land or reduce inputs to achieve the same production levels.

Vertical farming, where plants or animals are placed in skyscrapers, is also being considered as a way to farm in urban environments. By shortening the distance from 'farm-to-fork' and avoiding the need for heavy machinery, vertical farming could also reduce CO2 emissions, according to the European Environment Agency.

Intensive agriculture and climate change

And of course there is global warming, which has now become a cross-cutting issue. Agriculture contributes to climate change by releasing two powerful greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere:

  • Methane (CH4) from livestock digestion processes and stored animal manure, and;
  • Nitrous oxide (N2O) from organic and mineral nitrogen fertilisers.

In addition to these direct agricultural emissions, the production of non-renewable fossil fuels–based agrochemicals also constitutes a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the European Commission, the EU's agriculture emissions are limited and falling. Emissions from the sector fell by 20 % in the EU-27 between 1990 and 2006 as a result of "the significant decline in livestock numbers, more efficient application of fertilisers and better manure management," it said. Currently, about 9% of the EU's total GHG emissions come from agriculture.

In parallel, a recent Stanford University study demonstrated that increased GHG emissions resulting from intensive farming are "more than offset by the effects of land preservation, which keeps carbon sequestered in native soils, savannahs and forests". 

The amount of carbon stored in cropland is indeed the lowest of all land types, with the exception of deserts and semi-deserts. And while global expansion of cropland is generally thought to be over, expansion into tropical forests continues to represent a major problem.

Boosting sustainable production in Europe is thus considered by many as the only way forward as the alternatives – increasing food imports from Latin America, for example – would entail cutting down pristine tropical forest.

EU Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik said that in today's Europe, "we can observe both negative and positive impacts of agriculture on the environment. Intensive agriculture can contaminate water and soil [and] damage biodiversity, while more traditional or extensive farming systems generally bring benefits to biodiversity, landscape, soil and water".

While the Common Agricultural Policy has been adapted to reflect environmental issues, "there is still major room for improvement – particular with regard to the extent in which we can integrate even more environmentalism into it," Poto?nik said.

EU Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolo? said: "I feel that most governments around the world are increasingly aware of the need to produce more using more sustainable farming practices. In this difficult economic situation, the key problem that remains is how to persuade farmers to take these important production decisions, which are probably not as economically rewarding in the short to medium term."

To meet the challenges of producing food in a more environmentally-friendly way, the European Environment Agency (EEA) has called on cities to develop 'living walls' of edible plants. "Through vertical farming, agriculture could become a feature of urban life, lowering energy consumption, carbon emissions and resource use in food production. By shortening the distance produce has to travel from 'farm-to-fork', and by negating the need for heavy machinery, vertical farming can reduce CO2 emissions," the agency suggests.

"Managing our urban spaces as extensions of agriculture will reduce the demand to turn forests into farmland. Food crops must be brought closer to the table," said EEA Director Jacqueline McGlade.

The EEA also wants to put an end to the overexploitation of water which is rife in agriculture by making farmers pay real prices for publicly managed irrigation systems. Water pricing is "the core mechanism" for making agricultural water use more efficient, pushing farmers to avoid waste and adopt more sustainable practices, the agency argues. 

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) stresses that "sustainable farming must replace intensive agriculture if the world is to feed a global population of about 9.2bn in 2050".

Its 'Save and Grow' report claims that the agricultural approach since the Green Revolution 50 years ago has resulted in many countries facing land degradation, excessive water use and pesticide resistance. The FAO is thus calling for "a new direction based on better use of water, more targeted pesticide use, switching chemical fertilisers for mineral and organic sources, and wider use of high-yield seeds, including genetically modified varieties".

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), purchases of agricultural inputs, such as mineral fertilisers, pesticides, energy and water, are expected to increase considerably in some of the EU's newest member states.

"This could lead to increased risks for water pollution and biodiversity, although the intensity of input use in the new member states is likely to remain lower than in most EU-15 countries," it noted.

"Environmental pressure is also likely to increase on water resources, especially as there has been a 7% increase in the EU-15 area irrigated over the period from 1990-92 to 2001-03, compared to the OECD average of 8% over this period," the organisation continued.

Yara, a leading producer of mineral fertilisers, acknowledges that inappropriate use of fertilisers may have some detrimental effects on soil, creating an imbalance of nutrients. But the company says this can be addressed by using fertilisers more efficiently by accurately matching crop needs with nutrient supply.

One of the company's precision farming tools is a tester that measures plants' nitrogen needs on the spot and thus allows fertiliser nitrogen applications to be adjusted accordingly. "Insufficient supply of phosphorus, potassium or sulphur can diminish nitrogen use efficiency. Frequent soil sampling provides data on actual nutrient supply from the soil as well as fertiliser needs," the company says.

The European Fertiliser Manufacturers Association (EFMA) notes that "48% of the current world population are fed thanks to the use of mineral fertilisers" and stresses that in order to provide enough food for a growing world population, "yields from farmland must be increased significantly by using modern and proven farming methods".

Good farming practice is designed to maximise the efficient use of inputs, such as fertiliser and diesel for tractors, so that not just food prices but also greenhouse gas emissions are also kept as low as possible, it explains.

Friedhelm Schmider, director-general of the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA), which brings together major pesticides manufacturers, said that "it is the products of the crop protection industry – the often vilified pesticides – that allow Europe's farmers to maximise productivity on the existing agricultural land base and avoid turning forests into farms".

"In Europe, biodiversity is mostly threatened by the conversion of natural habitats to farmland," he remarked.

Copa-Cogeca, the European farmers' organisation, underlines that growers who specifically manage biodiversity need to be rewarded accordingly. "Agricultural land in NATURA 2000 areas and High Nature Value (HNV) farmland in particular – often characterised by low productivity and labour intensive farming practices - are seriously under threat," it says.

Therefore, it argues that payments for ecosystem services can play a central role by "providing incentives to farmers for maintaining and enhancing environmentally-friendly farming practices, thus contributing to the halt in biodiversity loss".

The farmers' lobby also calls for "increased cooperation along the food chain," with retailers and the food industry "both in applied research and in the creation of networks to improve the pooling and exchange of knowledge". This, it argues, would be "a decisive factor in achieving environmentally-friendly intensive agriculture with high levels of productivity whilst also using natural resources efficiently and reducing the impact on the environment and the climate".

For Copa-Cogeca, the key tools to face future challenges in agriculture include: providing farmers with the necessary knowledge and skills through advisory and vocational training for highly productive and environmentally sustainable agriculture; research and development of innovative technology and management practices targeting improvements in water, nutrient, energy and soil use efficiency; support for putting innovative solutions into practice; well-designed financial incentives to reduce environmental impacts while securing economic viability of farming and agri-business, and; financial incentives within and beyond the CAP, as the CAP is neither a research nor a climate change policy.

In a recent Stanford University study, Burney & al. write that "it remains a question whether modern agriculture can balance agronomy and ethics to sustain both ecological and human needs in the future. Substantial greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from agricultural production and related land use changes further complicate this debate".

But they conclude that at least for the climate change effects of intensive agriculture, increased greenhouse-gas emissions resulting from intensive farming are "more than offset by the effects of land preservation, which keeps carbon sequestered in native soils, savannahs and forests".

  • 1940-1970: Green Revolution.
  • 1991: EU pesticides regulation.
  • 1999: Agenda 2000 introduces voluntary environmental cross compliance in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
  • 2003: CAP reform makes environmental cross-compliance requirements mandatory.
  • Oct. 2003: EU Fertilisers Regulation.
  • Jan. 2005: CAP single farm payments linked to Good Agricultural and Environmental Conditions (GAECs).
  • July 2006: Commission Framework Directive laying down common objectives and requirements for sustainable use of pesticides.
  • April 2009: Commission working document on 'Adapting to climate change: the challenge for European agriculture and rural areas'.
  • Oct. 2009: New EU regulation on pesticides.
  • By early 2011: Deadline for member states to implement EU Directive on sustainable use of pesticides
  • 26 Oct. 2011: Joint Commission-Polish EU Presidency conference on management of water resources in agriculture.
  • Oct. 2011: Presentation of legislative proposals for reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
  • Nov. 2011: Commission communication on the European Innovation Partnership 'Agricultural productivity and sustainability'.
  • Nov. 2011: Final report of study on options to fully harmonise EU legislation on fertilising materials - including technical feasibility and environmental, social and economic impacts.
  • End 2012: Commission to table 'Blueprint for Safeguarding Europe's Water' (see non-paper).
  • Dec. 2012Proposal for regulation relating to fertilisers, to repeal current regulation.

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