Intensive farming is found to be better than organic methods for protecting the environment

By Mark Henderson, 2 September 2011

Source @ The Australian

Organic cattle farmer Ann Blundy

South Gippsland farmer Ann Blundy is a successful example of organic farming, after switching to the practice 18 years ago. Picture: David Geraghty. Source: The Australian

ORGANIC farming can be less effective at protecting wildlife than intensive methods, according to research that undermines its claim to be the most environmentally friendly form of agriculture.

Farming systems such as organic that seek to share land between crops and wildlife inflict greater damage on biodiversity than conventional approaches that maximise crop yields, a major study has revealed.

Such “land-sharing” methods typically deliver lower yields than intensive farming and they require much more land to produce the same amount of food, scientists at the University of Cambridge and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds found. This means that important wilderness habitats must be destroyed to create extra farmland, which easily outweighs any small benefits of making fields friendlier to wildlife.

The research, conducted in Ghana and India, found that most species of birds and trees, common or rare, would have higher populations if farms were kept as small as possible and managed to produce maximum yields. This strategy must be combined with measures to protect wilderness habitats.

Scientists behind the study, which is published in the journal Science, said that organic farming can play a part in land-sparing, provided it generates high yields. They also warned that the findings may not apply to different parts of the world, and they have begun new research in Poland to evaluate European conditions.

The findings, however, question claims that the organic method is the most sustainable approach to farming, and that intensive systems are bad for biodiversity.

“Environmental benefit has been one of the selling points of organic farming, but frequently what we see is lower yields, and benefits for wildlife that are not that great,” said Ben Phalan, who led the Ghanaian study.

“It sells the message that you can do both conservation and food production together, that they can co-exist. But our research would suggest that this is probably optimistic and might be wishful thinking.”

His colleague Malvika Onial, who led the Indian research, said: “It would be nice to think that we could conserve species and produce lots of food, all on the same land. But our data from Ghana and India show that’s not the best option for most species.”

The findings could also have implications for European Union agricultural policies.

Martin Harper, conservation director of the RSPB, said: “The European Commission is proposing to rebrand a third of farm subsidies in Europe as green payments. This paper in Science suggests that unless the proposed green measures really deliver significant and lasting environmental benefits it would be better to use this money directly on nature reserves and saving threatened species.”

He added, however, that there was still a strong case that resources should be used to help farmers make space for wildlife in all farmed countryside: “Agri-environment schemes have a good track record in saving farmland birds like the corncrake and cirl bunting and have the potential to reverse the decline of the skylark.”

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