- - Monday, October 8, 2018


One of the biggest conversations about modern farming has to do with its impact on the environment. Ever since our ancestors began domesticating plants some 10,000 years ago, the entire course of history was forever changed — for humans, animals and, of course, the environment.

By its very nature, any form of agriculture is going to have some sort of impact on the environment. Nevertheless, there remains a great deal of controversy over farming methods, with left-wing activists claiming that modern agricultural producers are concentrated “factory farms” that ruin the planet. A new report takes issue with the hysteria.

A paper published in Nature Sustainability describes why using less land to produce more food is environmentally friendly while allowing more land to be preserved for natural growth.

In other words, today’s high-yield farming methods beat low-yield agricultural frameworks — namely organic agriculture, which rejects some modern technology, including genetic modification. The research calculates that organic milk production causes one-third more soil loss and takes up twice as much land for production than conventional milk production.

What about greenhouse gas emissions — e.g., cow flatulence another popular talking point? Even if using less land, aren’t the gases from concentrated herds of animals harming the environment more than less dense, organic farms raising livestock? Prior to settlers arriving, American bison had free range across the continent. According to an estimate from research done at Penn State, those 50 million bison produced more greenhouse gases than all 94 million beef cattle in the United States today.

Today’s cattle are generally finished on feedlots. Feedlots — where large numbers of cattle can move around and eat grain, efficiently converting the food into meat — produce significantly less greenhouse gases. Apparently pasture-finished (“grass-fed”) cattle produce at least twice as much more methane than grain-fed cattle finished on feedlots due to the much higher fiber content in grass. In fact, if all cattle were grass-fed, it would take up vastly more land, and produce more than 20 times the amount of greenhouse gases than the cattle raised on feedlots.

Farmers have an interest in preserving a healthy environment, keeping their livestock healthy and doing more with less. Since the dawn of agriculture, humanity has made vast improvements in farming methods. This has translated to being able to feed more people by using less land and significantly cutting down on methane emissions.

Another study has claimed that we now stand on the precipice of “peak farmland,” meaning that due to our modern high-yield farming, we can now survey a large expanse of land that will be spared for nature, all the while being able to feed 10 billion people. In the study, the author notes, “Bad news is far more popular in environmental studies than good Bias arises from the reasonable fear that good news may relieve pressure on society to green itself while bad news is good for funding both research and advocacy.”

Despite the science, many environmentalists refuse to recognize the reduced impact of modern high-yield farming techniques. Instead, groups like Greenpeace advocate against the efficiencies. As the public becomes educated on these issues however, they find as did Patrick Moore, the co-founder of Greenpeace, that we have been listening to “a band of scientific illiterates.”

To be sure, there remains work to be done, notably in developing countries where efficient agricultural methods are still wanting. A new green revolution can spread. And environmental activists need to embrace it.

• Richard Berman is the president of Berman and Co., a public relations firm in Washington, D.C.

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