Sustainable trade-offs? Balancing food production and greenhouse emissions

By Nathan Gray contact

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Sustainable trade-off: Balancing food security and CO2 emissions

Related tags: Greenhouse gas emissions, Greenhouse gas, Agriculture

Using sustainable methods to increase global crop yields could help provide more food to people in need while also slashing greenhouse emissions, say scientists.

Utilising sustainable farming methods to produce more food using less land may help to slash greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 12% per calorie produced whilst also helping to meet growing demands for food as the global population continues to expand, suggest scientists writing in Environmental Research Letters​.

Led by Hugo Valin from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Austria, the research team noted that many current methods to increase food production involve increasing fertilizer use, which can lead to large emissions of nitrogen-containing gases that also contribute to global warming.

“Agriculture is a major contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through crop cultivation, livestock, and land use change,”​ the team wrote. “These sources altogether account for about one-third of total anthropogenic GHG emissions, and four-fifths of them are located in developing countries.”

The researchers note that in many cases farming in developing countries is not as efficient as it could be, and so investing in better farming practices could lead to big benefits both in terms of food security and greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, the team found that increasing livestock yields was more effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions than increasing yields from crops that people eat.

Overall, closing yield gaps by 50% for crops and 25% for livestock would lead to a 12% savings in greenhouse gas emission per calorie produced, they estimated.

"The most efficient way to ensure sustainable intensification on the crop side is to rely on practices and technologies that are not more fertilizer-demanding, such as new varieties, improved rotations, integrated crop-livestock practices, and precision farming,"​ said Valin.

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