Even patchwork landscapes of natural habitat and high-yield farmland can serve to preserve a variety of wildlife species.
Agricultural land occupies a staggering five billion hectares worldwide, which accounts for nearly 40% of the entire planet’s land surface area. Around a third of it is used for growing crops while the rest consists of pastures for grazing livestock like cattle.
That leaves precious little untouched land for truly pristine ecosystems, yet there is a way we can increase the rate of natural habitats: by making farming practices as high-yield as possible. That way relatively small areas should suffice for growing crops, which would leave more land preserved as natural habitats.
This is according to a British scientist who assessed more than 2,500 plant, insect and vertebrate species on five continents and reached the conclusion that so-called land sparing, which involves restoring or creating natural habitats in agricultural landscapes, can be highly beneficial to wildlife.
The practice of growing more food on less land will also be key as the planet’s human population continues to increase at a rapid pace, especially in already overpopulated areas like Africa and the Indian subcontinent.
“Figuring out how to feed, clothe and power 11 billion people without causing mass species extinction and wrecking the climate is this century’s greatest challenge. Preserving diverse life while meeting humanity’s needs will mean enormous trade-offs, but the evidence is starting to point in one direction,” explains Andrew Balmford, a professor of conservation science at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.
“Most species fare much better if habitats are left intact, which means reducing the space needed for farming. So areas that are farmed need to be as productive as we can possibly make them,” he adds.
In many countries in Europe and elsewhere there is already precious little land left for natural habitats. In England alone a fifth of farmed land will need to be rewilded to at least some extent, experts have said. At the same time, the lowest-yield farmed land, which occupies a third of all agricultural land in the country, produces just 15% of English’s agricultural output.
“Most species are specialized to particular environments. Even minor disruptions reduce their populations. This is why so many species decline even with gentler farming,” the scientist notes.
Yet even patchwork landscapes of natural habitat and high-yield farmland can serve to preserve a variety of wildlife species, allowing them to thrive, Balmford says. After a mere 4 square kilometers of wetland was restored near Lakenheath in the east of England in the late 1990s, egrets have come to thrive again in the area and cranes not seen there for three centuries have likewise returned.
In addition to the benefits to wildife conservation, high-yield farming will also sequester more carbon per area because of the increased density of vegetation in a given place. At the same time, if around 30% of the United Kingdom’s land was spared for woods and wetlands, vegetation there could store enough carbon to offset almost all emissions from UK farming by 2050, Balmford says.
Yet for all its various benefits high-yield farming should still be done in ways that are as environmentally friendly as possible because industrial production often comes with increased levels of pollution and other environmental hazards.
Rather, a solution lies in adopting nature-based agricultural solutions. One such solution was adopted by millions of smallholder farmers in China who began to adapt their praticies to local soil and weather conditions, which enabled them to increase their yields by 11% even as their need for fertilizers fell by a sixth, the scientist says.
“Farming carp in rice paddies — the fish eat pests, provide fertilizer through faeces, and are themselves an extra crop — is another of numerous possibilities that utilize natural ecosystems. Emerging technologies such as boosted photosynthesis in rice also offer hope for sustainably high yields,” he notes.
Meanwhile, in New Zealand a “sparing” approach to its forests has led to more than 70% of local forests being protected while timber is intensively harvested from smaller pine plantations.