For some critics, the term "production agriculture" is a four-letter word. It connotes all things about farming and ranching that they see as bad.
A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, however, adds another description of production agriculture: climate friendly.
The study, authored by Jennifer A. Burney, Steven J. Davis and David B. Lobella of Stanford University, doesn't endorse one form of agriculture. Rather, the study illustrates what many in agriculture have said all along: Because production agriculture has become significantly more efficient over the past several decades, it requires less land to produce more food than it would otherwise require.
The authors are abundantly clear that they did not take a global view of production agriculture and its total impact on the environment. Rather, they focused on only the impact on the climate.
"In this one way that we've looked at, which is the climate impact, it's pretty obviously been a good thing," study co-author Steven Davis, a geologist at the Carnegie Institute at Stanford, told The Associated Press.
The point of the study was to compare the greenhouse gas impact of agriculture if yields had not increased during the past four decades with that of modern high-efficiency production agriculture. Yields for some crops such as corn have more than doubled during that time, thanks to better hybrids and technology.
Without those developments, the amount of land under cultivation would have had to about double to grow the same amount of corn. That in turn would have released more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, they found.
Overall, without the increases in yields that have been achieved in production agriculture during the past 45 years, an additional 4.35 billion acres would have been put into production to grow the same amount of food. That in turn would have releases into the atmosphere an additional 317 billion to 590 billion tons of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide.
The key to limiting the release of greenhouse gases is to continue to increase crop yields, the researchers found.
Their conclusion parallels that of others, including Norman Borlaugh, who led the Green Revolution of the 1960s by helping to develop hybrids that increased yields and staved off a worldwide food shortage.
Critics say advances in organic agriculture can also produce higher yields, so the conclusions of the Stanford researchers are beside the point.
"Of course higher yields are a good thing," Craig Cox of the Environmental Working Group told the AP. "The real question is, how do we get higher yields without a lot of other serious consequences that our agricultural intensification has produced?"
That's a great question, but damage to the atmosphere is also a serious consequence if yields do not adequately increase in coming decades and more cropland has to be put into production.
This is not an either-or issue between types of agriculture. It's a simple fact that more food will be required for a growing world population. That will require significantly higher crop yields. How that is achieved is up to the farmers and ranchers who grow those crops.
Reprinted courtesy of Capital Press.