Agriculture, economics, and well-being. Can it benefit the environment?

Can we intensify agriculture and still find a balance with the environment?

At a point when global food demands outweigh the supply, researchers are trying to determine how to intensify agricultural outputs while protecting our environment and human wellbeing. As the populations around the world continue to increase, global demand for food may grow for another 40 years1. Intensification of conventional agriculture has led to a triple yield increase over the last century while organic and conservation practices have also been increasing1. The change to organic or conservation agricultural practices has been due to the popularity of their ability to protect the environment and positively influence over-all happiness3. What has yet to be determined is how agricultural policies can be changed to benefit the environment and still maintain an annual increase in crop production. More importantly, researchers must understand how to implement these changes in developing countries to ensure economic and food prosperity.

Economics in developing countries limited by agriculture practices

In many developing countries, agriculture is conducted by individuals who rent land. In addition to the cost of rent, these farms must also share 50% of their crop growth with their landlord each season3. With little to no opportunity for upward mobility, these farmers are not incentivized to increase production. An increase in production would amount to more work with less of a return. To determine if increasing incentives positively influenced individual wellbeing, researchers conducted a study in Uganda involving 237 villages3. Out of these 237 villages, researchers worked with 304 tenants that were divided into three groups3:

  1. Maintenance of 50-50 crop share agreement between tenant and landlord
  2. Crop share agreement modified to a 75-25 tenant-landlord ratio
  3. Maintenance of 50-50 crop share agreement between tenant and landlord with increased cash assistance

When comparing groups two and three, researchers concluded that they had similar crop outputs while group 2 had an overall increase3. This data shows the potential for increased share agreements to positively impact tenants well-being, happiness, and productivity.

Although the crop-share increase translated into a 140% increase in tenant income, the landlord’s income dropped by 20%. In order to guarantee success for both tenants and landlords, further investigation is required to determine what rate increases are most beneficial to each in order to draft appropriate agricultural policies worldwide.

Can changes to agriculture practices benefit farms and ecosystems?

Two methods of farming have influenced changes to current regulatory policies. An increasing number of farms have implemented organic practices, conservation practices, or a combination of both. This increase has given scientists and researchers access to data that either confirms or denies truth to a scientific hypothesis. The ability to compare agricultural practices on a world scale allows scientists to determine which ones are most beneficial to ecosystems and human populations.

When comparing conventional agricultural practices against organic and conservation methods, conventional agriculture is often less beneficial to the surrounding environment. Alternately, organic farming benefits ecosystems by enhancing biodiversity and reducing environmental impacts. Conservation agriculture consists of three crop management principles2:

  1. Direct seeding into reduced or no-till fields
  2. Non-removal of crop residues or planting of cover crops to provide permanent soil cover
  3. Crop rotation

These practices are primarily beneficial to soil quality and soil components without addressing over-all ecosystem needs.

Is intensification the answer to increased crop yield?

Beyond the environmental impact, many discussions have also focused on the yield stability of crops on farms around the world. These discussions primarily included conventional agricultural practices and ignored the potential yield stability of organic and conservation agricultural practices.

The yield of crop species can vary year to year and is dependent upon changes in precipitation, temperature, pest outbreaks, weed pressure, soil fertility, soil structure, and agricultural practices. Organically managed fields have approximately 19.2% less yield than conventionally managed fields2. This is due to many factors including differences in fertilizer and pest control practices. Conventional agriculture allows for the application of insecticides to reduce or eliminate pest infestations that could decimate an entire seasons crop. The additional use of organic and inorganic fertilizers also increases the growth of crops allowing for larger plants in a shorter amount of time.

When no-till conservation management practices were compared to conventional tillage practices, researchers observed that no-tillage resulted in a 5.7% decrease in yield2. This finding is important as it shows no-till practices may not be as beneficial as researchers thought. No-till practices did show that certain crops benefited from reduced soil disturbance and were able to produce equal or greater yields than conventional tillage practices.

Researches also reviewed data from several studies to determine how stable yields were over time between organic and conventional agriculture. Yield stability did not differ between organic and conventional agriculture2. When these management practices are executed over several growing seasons, the average yearly yield remained the same.

Addressing the connections between agriculture, economics, and well-being

With human populations continuing to increase, it is important to address the demand for foods supplies in a way that protects the environment and benefits human well-being and happiness. Farmers in developing countries are often forced into implementing new agricultural practices without an incentive to do so. Without the option of upward mobility in happiness, income, and well-being, these individuals are not able to implement new agricultural practices and policies.

To address the connectedness of agriculture, ecosystems, and human prosperity, a middle ground must be found to balance out the positive impacts. Humans have the potential to be elevated to modern standards of economic prosperity while still supporting landowners and local economies. Combining organic farming methods with conservation practices, the need for biodiversity can be addressed while still protecting the quality of our crops and reducing the environmental impact of farm wastewater and fertilizer run-off.

Finally, conventional farming practices should be adapted to meet the needs of organic and conservation managed farms. Reducing the number of hours an individual must work is beneficial to overall health while still being able to maintain crop yields. Decreasing the size of individual farming practices also allows for more environmental protection and wildlife management. Smaller sized farms growing different crops can sustain a population in its immediate surroundings. When the pressure to produce the best quality crop in the largest amounts is eliminated, each community can thrive economically.

References
1. Agricultural intensification not a “blueprint” for sustainable development – News. (2018, June). Retrieved from http://www.uea.ac.uk/about/-/agricultural-intensification-not-a-blueprint-for-sustainable-development
2. Knapp, S., & Van der Heijden, M. (2018, September 7). A global meta-analysis of yield stability in organic and conservation agriculture. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-018-05956-1
3. Todesco, F. (2019, January). Field Experiment Finds a Simple Change that Could Boost Agricultural Productivity by 60%. Retrieved from https://www.knowledge.unibocconi.eu/notizia.php?idArt=20650
Agriculture, economics, and well-being. Can it benefit the environment?
Can we intensify agriculture and still find a balance with the environment?

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