Greens: Apologize to High-Yield Farmers!

Researchers at Stanford University and the Carnegie Institute have just confirmed that high-yield farming, by feeding the Earth’s population from less land, has prevented the release of as much as 600 billion tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That’s equal to as much as one-third of all the greenhouse gasses emitted by human societies since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in 1850.

For 50 years, the environmental movement has condemned high-yield farming as unsustainable, poisonous, immoral, and unfashionable. Worst, they said, conventional farming aggravated man-made global warming through greenhouse emissions from its fertilizers, diesel fuel, and pesticides.

Now they must re-evaluate both the virtues of high-yield systems and the value of organic farming. Says study co-author Jennifer Burney of Stanford:

Our results dispel the notion that modern intensive agriculture is inherently worse for the environment than a more "old-fashioned" way of doing things.

Co-author Steven Davis of the Carnegie Institute notes:

Converting a forest or some scrubland to agricultural area causes a lot of natural carbon in that ecosystem to be oxidized and lost to the atmosphere. What our study shows is that these indirect impacts from converting land to agriculture outweigh the direct emissions that come from the modern, intensive style of agriculture.

By a country mile.

We’ve known for decades that high-yield farming was our greatest humanitarian achievement, preventing at least a billion famine deaths. High-yield farms have also supported the shift to cities, where people take up less land per capita and have smaller families. That’s why the human population is now set to decline modestly after 2050.

We’ve also known that the high food yields saved billions of hectares of wildlife habitat from being plowed down for more low-yield crops. Until now, however, nobody had added up the crop acres not plowed and multiplied them by the estimated soil carbon loss as natural ecosystems were sacrificed. Now it’s clear that high-yield farming was even more valuable than anyone previously dared to claim.

Moreover, the high-yield farming saves this carbon at a very low cost -- about $7 per ton. Emission cuts through other strategies typically cost $20 per ton, and far more for such expensive strategies as wind turbines, solar panels, and corn ethanol.