Food demand drives the most dominant land use on Earth. This causes a fundamental challenge to the natural environment.
Lots of natural habitats have been converted to farmland, and every year new cropland (with a size of a small European country) may be required to feed the globe.
When land is converted for agriculture, we lose forests and rare species and get more greenhouse gases.
So how to protect the natural environment without sacrificing agriculture? In an essay recently published in PLoS Biology, scientists provide some solutions.
The paper summarizes two main challenges to limiting agriculture’s environmental costs. One challenge is that policymakers cannot align the private interests of farmers and businesses with a public interest in environmental good.
The other challenge is that methods that succeed in reducing the environmental harms of agriculture in one place can increase them in another place.
There are three possible resolutions to the agriculture-nature conflict. First, the government can make regulations to project environment, such as limits on pesticide use or abstracting water.
Second, communities can support farmers and local stakeholders to work together to address the issue.
Third, the government can use economic instruments (e.g., tax) to make farmers minimize environmental impacts.
The best way is to use policies to ensure high-quality habitat remains in nature while encouraging farmers to achieve intensive production on existing farmland with strict limits on environmental harms.
Such a system would most heavily tax intensive land uses that generate the most negative environmental impacts, while areas of intact ecological function would entitle the owners to a rebate.
Researchers find that investments in land retirement and input-limiting methods, with the suggested policies, can improve the local environment.
For example, when more money was used to retire agricultural land, farmland birds benefited. When more money was used to reduce the use of fertilizer, total emissions of greenhouse gases declined.
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