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.

Organic farms get only about half the yield of high-tech farming, primarily because they refuse to use nitrogen to tap the full yield potential of their seeds, and secondly because they allow too much pest damage in their fields. Equally damning, organic disallows no-till farming, which cuts soil erosion by up to 95 percent, because it requires herbicides to control competing weeds. Nor have any health or food safety benefits been documented for organic foods.

Now we are learning that organic farming is also worse for global warming than high-tech farming. What’s left for the organics to claim?

I recommend that "green" organizations send their apologies to Norman Borlaug, care of the World Food Prize Foundation, 1700 RuanCenter, 666 Grand Ave., Des Moines, IA, 50309. Norman died last September. But I like to think that somehow he’ll get the messages.

By the way, this year’s World Food Prize Winners are Jo Luck and David Beckmann. Ms. Luck has turned Heifer International into one of the world’s biggest efforts to help third world farmers earn more and get better nutrition. Beckmann runs Bread for the World, which has organized more than 250,000 people into a lobby for ending hunger. Last year’s winner was Gebiza Ejeta, an Ethiopian-born plant breeder whose high-yield sorghum varieties have boosted food availability for millions in semi-arid regions. Perhaps the letters of apologies should include grateful contributions from the vast "green" grant machine.

Resources:

“High-yield Agriculture Slows Pace of Global Warming, Say Stanford Researchers,” Stanford Report, June 14, 2010.

“Greenhouse Gas Mitigation by Agricultural Intensification,” Jennifer Burney, Steven J. Davis and David B. Lobell, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.0914216107; 2010.