One out of five plant species are threatened with extinction. Almost a quarter of mammal species are endangered. The situation is just as bad or worse for reptiles (21% endangered), amphibians (30%), fish (21%), insects (22%) and mollusks (41%). Birds are doing slightly better (“just” 12% endangered). Habitat loss is the main culprit. The conversion of forested land for agriculture is the principal driver of habitat loss – accounting for a whopping 80% of deforestation worldwide.
So if we’re serious about saving the world’s flora and fauna, we have to prioritize shrinking the amount of land devoted to agriculture. We do that by increasing agricultural productivity, reducing food waste, changing dietary habits, and not having as many babies.
I’ll focus on agricultural productivity. Subsistence farming is unproductive. Subsistence farmers don’t have the resources or knowledge to use their land efficiently or sustainably. We need to do all we can to help these poor farmers find another livelihood.
Nor is organic agriculture all that productive. On average, organic farming requires much more land than conventional farming to achieve the same output. How much more land? As one commentator put it:
“To have raised all U.S. crops as organic in 2014 would have required farming of one hundred nine million more acres of land. That is an area equivalent to all the parkland and wildland areas in the lower 48 states or 1.8 times as much as all the urban land in the nation.”
The way to go is conventional commercial farming. These farms can be small (to a point) and have less environmental impact than organic farming – and not just because they require less land. Don’t believe me? Then check out the recent meta-analysis Does organic farming reduce environmental impacts?. To quote:
“…ammonia emissions, nitrogen leaching and nitrous oxide emissions per product unit were higher from organic systems. Organic systems had lower energy requirements, but higher land use, eutrophication* potential and acidification potential per product unit.”
Between product improvements and targeted application, artificial fertilizers and pesticides have become safer over the years. Conventional agriculture has embraced sustainable practices, such as no-till, and continues to evolve. But the best thing about conventional agriculture is that it can feed more mouths on less land than other types of farming. And that means more land can be freed up for endangered species – which need all the land they can get.
* a form of water pollution from fertilizer runoff.
Saragusty J. Genome banking for vertebrates wildlife conservation. In: Katkov I, editor. Current Frontiers in Cryobiology. Croatia: InTech; 2012. pp. 293–368. 574.
Steven Savage The Lower Productivity Of Organic Farming: A New Analysis And Its Big Implications Oct 9, 2015 http://www.forbes.com/sites/stevensavage/2015/10/09/the-organic-farming-yield-gap/#b13b518240fa
The Lower Productivity Of Organic Farming: A New Analysis And Its Big Implications Oct 9, 2015 http://www.forbes.com/sites/stevensavage/2015/10/09/the-organic-farming-yield-gap/#b13b518240fa
Tuomisto, H.L., Hodge, I.D., Riordan, P. & Macdonald, D.W. (2012) Does organic farming reduce environmental impacts? – a meta-analysis of European research. Journal of Environmental Management, 112, 309–320.
Wageningen University and Research Centre. "Agriculture is the direct driver for worldwide deforestation." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 25 September 2012. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/09/120925091608.htm .