Modern Agriculture Stalls Global Warming

June 16, 2010 08:48 AM

For a moment, consider a world without commercial fertilizers, without pesticides, without biotech crops, without the myriad other agriculture investments seen during the Green Revolution. It'd be a world with more global warming and more severe climate change, says a study conducted at Stanford University.

Researchers at Stanford's Program on Food Security and the Environment (FSE) undertook the survey to compare and contrast current production practices to practices of 30 to 40 years ago, says co-author of the study and FSE fellow David Lobell.

"The point of this paper is that it's not fair to look at current emissions. You also have to look at alternative scenarios that would replace the current system,” he says. "We found that although you would reduce the direct emissions associated with things like fertilizer, you would greatly increase emissions associated with deforestation and other land use changes.

"If we assume that we kept population and standard-of-living increases but did not improve agricultural technologies at the same pace, we estimate that the total amount of emissions would be about one-third more of what has been emitted since the Industrial Revolution [of the mid-19th century]. It's a considerable amount of emissions,” Lobell says.

The paper also explains that environmental benefits aren't limited to carbon emissions. According to a Stanford news release, the researchers estimate that emissions of the three major greenhouse gases—methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide—were reduced by "the equivalent of about a quarter ton of carbon dioxide—a high rate of financial return compared to other approaches to reducing gas.”

"Our results dispel the notion that modern intensive agriculture is inherently worse for the environment than a more ?old-fashioned' way of doing things,” says Jennifer Burney in the same release. She was the lead author of a paper describing the study that will be published online by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"The bottom line is modern agriculture has effectively saved a lot of land from conversion and that is a pretty sizable amount of greenhouse gas emissions,” Lobell says. "If you divide the total amount of resources that have gone into those improvements by the amount of carbon savings, it works out to about $5.00/ton of CO2. That is actually less than what carbon is trading for in Europe and other markets.” 

Where We Stand Now
Lobell says current agriculture practices do indeed emit carbon emissions. But given the alternatives of lower-input and lower-yielding production needed to feed the current world population, emissions would be much higher due to increased land clearing that would result in as much as 30% more carbon emissions to the environment. 

"Without these technology improvements, the pace of climate change would be 30% faster than what we've seen. So it's certainly not enough to counteract all these emissions, but it's a sizable amount. The real question going forward is whether there is an opportunity of using agriculture as a way of ensuring that we don't clear more land and have the associated emissions from that clearing,” Lobell says.

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