A report from the UK’s Rural Economy and Land Use Programme indicates that high-yield production systems can contribute to sustainability goals such as wildlife conservation. The key, the researchers say, is to look at farming and wildlife habitat on a large scale, rather than farm-by-farm.
The report, titled “Sustainable agricultural landscapes: thinking beyond the boundaries of the farm,” notes that global populations and food demand are rising while land available for agriculture is shrinking. Agriculture must become more sustainable while producing more.
A common perception holds that “sustainable” agriculture must be more organic, low-input or less intensive. These production systems, however, typically yield less per unit of land, meaning more extensive farming is required to meet food demand.
An alternative argument contends that selecting some land for intensive, high-yielding agriculture using modern production technologies can help preserve wildlife habitat elsewhere. Here in the United States, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) serves as a good example of mixing intensive agriculture with protection of sensitive land valuable as habitat.
The researchers point out tradeoffs between types of agricultural production systems. Intensive farming produces high yields, but large fields planted to a single crop often make for poor wildlife habitat. Also, use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is energy intensive and can have negative environmental effects. Organic farming with small fields, more biodiversity, crop rotations and non-use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers can be more wildlife friendly, at least on a local scale. But, as noted, these systems require more land per unit of production. Also, these systems can involve hidden environmental costs, as unmet food demand can result in wildlife habitat elsewhere being developed for crop production.
The authors recommend looking at the interactions between agriculture and wildlife habitat on a broad “landscape” scale. While a small, mixed farm managed for crops and wildlife provides better habitat than a large corn or soybean field, they suggest thinking about how to make the landscape as a whole better for producing both food and wildlife. Depending the characteristics of a piece of land, it might be best suited for organic or extensive agriculture. In many areas though, “a mixture of high-yield, intensive farming and land managed for nature can produce both more food and more wildlife than the pursuit of wildlife-friendly farming across the whole landscape.”
One of the researchers, Professor Tim Benton of the University of Leeds, stresses a need for a strategy that works at national level and looks at how intensive farming within sustainable landscapes in some localities could be balanced by prioritizing wildlife to a greater degree in others. “Only by much larger-scale thinking can we hope to achieve the holy grail of increased production that is sustainable and does not damage irreparably the natural processes that we all depend upon."
View the report online.