Science & Environment

Boosting food crop yields 'can protect biodiversity'

Farmland and woodland (Image: BBC)
Image caption A growing population will increase demand for food - and pressure for more farmland - unless yields increase

Increasing crop yields could help meet the rising global demand for more food while sparing land to protect biodiversity, a study has suggested.

The expansion of agriculture is deemed to be one of the main drivers for global habitat and biodiversity loss.

Researchers from the UK and Brazil say that boosting yields could help - but only if policies such as incentives or land-zoning are implemented as well.

Their findings have been published in the journal Science.

"The least bad way we can reconcile the rising demand for food production over the next 50 years with the need to protect the environment... is through this notion of land-sparing, which is pursuing sustainable but high-yield farming on farmland," said co-author Andrew Balmford, professor of conservation science at the University of Cambridge.

"By doing that, we can meet our needs but on a relatively smaller footprint of land and spare intact or restored natural habitat for other creatures or for the benefits we get from nature that we rely upon."

Four mechanisms

He told BBC News that it was probably the "least bad" option in terms of of a policy approach for food security and environmental protection - if it was possible to deliver.

"The problem is that if we leave it to market forces alone, increasing yields will not provide enough incentive for farmers to restrict their footprint," Prof Balmford explained.

"Prices might come down, which would increase demand. On the other hand, profits might go up and this might increase the incentive to expand farming rather than restrict it."

Image caption Widespread intensive agriculture leaves little scope for wildlife to become established, adapt or survive

In their policy briefing, the team of scientists from the UK and Brazil identified four categories of land-sparing mechanisms that were currently being used in some parts of the world.

The four categories were:

  • Land-use zoning: "Zoning some land for conservation and some for agriculture limits agricultural expansion," the scientists explained. However, they added that there was a risk of "leakage", which referred to the displacement of food production to areas outside the zoned region. The authors cited an example in Costa Rica where the government said forests were off-limits for agricultural expansion, and thus halved the rate at which mature forests were being cleared.
  • Economic instruments: These include payments, land taxes and subsidies. The authors said they could be tailored to stimulate yield increases or to discourage habitat conversion. An incentive scheme in Himalayan India, for example, delivered an area set aside for a snow leopard recovery programme in exchange for payments for shepherds and technical assistance to reduce the loss of livestock to snow leopards.
  • Strategic deployment of technology: By focusing assistance on existing farmlands, the authors said, yield-enhancing measures - such as soil, nutrient and water technical advice - would not indirectly stimulate agriculture in areas rich in natural habitats.
  • Standards and certification: Voluntary standards could help deliver results through a series of steps, including a requirement to protect natural habitat, and rewarding good performances through a price premium and access to markets, the authors suggested.

Prof Balmford said that extra policy mechanisms were needed to couple high-yield farming to safeguarding or restoring natural habitats.

"This paper is a first attempt really to try to consider what those mechanisms might look like," he explained.

"We have looked around at what, in principle, might be possible, and trying to find a few examples of what is happening already in different parts of the world.

"This is not a complete set of all the opportunities that might be pursued - some of these ideas might work in some places but not in others, and there will be other ideas that we have not thought about at all."

He added: "This paper is a stimulus to talk about how high-yield farming might be most effectively coupled, through policy, to land sparing."

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