June 21, 2010
High Yield Agriculture Cuts CO2 Emissions

Rising yields in agriculture reduced the need to convert forests to farm land and by doing so reduced the amount of carbon dioxide released when forests get razed.

Advances in high-yield agriculture over the latter part of the 20th century have prevented massive amounts of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere the equivalent of 590 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide according to a new study led by two Stanford Earth scientists.

The yield improvements reduced the need to convert forests to farmland, a process that typically involves burning of trees and other plants, which generates carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

The researchers estimate that if not for increased yields, additional greenhouse gas emissions from clearing land for farming would have been equal to as much as a third of the world's total output of greenhouse gases since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in 1850.

There's an interesting twist here for greenies to note: Genetically engineered crops reduce CO2 emissions because genetic engineering raises crop yields. Funny but true. So Europeans opposed to genetic engineering of crops (and the center of such opposition seems squarely in Europe) are inadvertently working against a goal that the vast majority of them support: reduction of CO2 emissions in order to prevent global warming.

This report reminds me of Jevon's Paradox where part of improvements in fuel efficiency goes toward more energy usage as people do more things with the money saved on buying fuel. Well, in a similar manner improvements in agricultural efficiency raised living standards and boosted population growth. So how much of the improvements in agricultural efficiency really reduced the amount of farm land shifted into agriculture? Use of technological advances in farming to lower the cost of growing a ton of grain increases incentives for using more grain to feed animals (some of which emit warming gas methane btw).

For example, People respond to lower cost grain by feeding more grain to cattle, pigs, and chickens. So then they eat more meat and their indirect consumption of grain soars. Also, higher crop productivity per acre reduces the the amount of labor needed per ton of grain produced. That frees up labor work in factories and develop more capital equipment with which to burn fossil fuels. This cancels some of the effect of reduced CO2 emissions that would otherwise come from higher crop yields.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 June 21 10:57 PM  Climate Biosphere

Bruce said at June 22, 2010 9:28 AM:

The best thing you can do is cut down a mature tree and turn it into lumber. That way the CO2 is fixed in place for decades or even a hundred years. Otherwise mature trees die and rot and release all the sequestered CO2 into the atmosphere.

Among the cows in Iowa said at June 22, 2010 11:39 AM:

High yields make bigger surpluses. Big surpluses are big political problems. GMOs make subsidy payments go up. This does not work with austerity programs.

Craig said at June 22, 2010 3:56 PM:

"in a similar manner improvements in agricultural efficiency raised living standards and boosted population growth"

When economic well-being improves, population growth declines. Why would improvements in agricultural efficiency be different?

I'd like to see the cited numbers for that claim.

chicopanther said at June 22, 2010 7:38 PM:

GMO (aka "Frankenfood") crops *reduce* CO2 emissions? Um, did somebody flunk science class? GMO plants do NOT emit CO2, they absorb it, just the same as other plants. Unless someone has created even more of a freak GMO plant than before!

Sorry, I don't care how companies such as Monsanto try to "greenwash" GMOs, they're bad news. They create new allergies that folks don't even know about. Not to mention that some of the tinkering with GMOs may cause extinction of long-running crop varieties.

Seriously, do some real reading on GMOs, and you'll be astounded at how bad they really are. And don't confuse GMOs with hybrid crops. With hybrids, you do something like combine two different corn plants, but with GMOs you do things like splice a flounder (fish) gene into a strawberry--totally bizarre!


newscaper said at June 22, 2010 8:42 PM:

chicopanther obviously understands nothing about economic opportunity cost, much less farming.

To yield the same amount of usable food, by comparison 'organic' farming requires more plants, land, irrigation and cultivation (aka energy).

Craig, the phenomenon of economically advancing countries seeing declining population growth rates (and even absolute declines) is a post mid-20th century one. Before then wealth *always* meant more people. Look at any population chart for the last 500 years. Sheesh. The trickle down effects on agriculture and sanitation/medicine are what allowed Third World populations to continue exploding.

Randall Parker said at June 22, 2010 9:58 PM:


Look at a graph of world population stretching over centuries. It exploded in the 19th and 20th centuries due to industrialization and higher crop yields.


You ignored the argument just proceeded to attack genetically engineered crops. The argument is simple: genetic engineering increases yield per acre and therefore reduces the number of acres needed to grow the same amount of crops.

Do you deny that genetic engineering raises crop yields? Do you deny that genetic engineering reduces the number of acres needed to crop a given amount of food?

Amused said at June 23, 2010 1:41 AM:

How To Construct A Convincing Argument: A Case Study

"Seriously, do some real reading on GMOs"

Which means

"Seriously, you should read the things that I believe about GMOs - that stuff totally kicks ASS. The stuff that I disagree with, however, is wrong - because I disagree with it. Read the REAL reading, readers!"

In said at June 23, 2010 6:51 PM:

I understand the argument regarding GMOs and CO2 emissions and don't dispute, but I'll take any chance to beat up on GMO's and Monsanto in particular ;p. The bottom line is that it is very unwise to trust this shit. There is no basis for trust. I've heard various theories about the possible dangers GMO's pose (http://www.youtube.com/undergroundwellness#p/u/70/5Clu5bWRdpo). It is hard to prove or disprove them when there is absolutely no money to be made from testing. Obviously the FDA offers scant oversight on the matter, their official position being that no safety testing is required.

Some reading material on the crimes of Monsanto: http://www.corporatewatch.org.uk/?lid=210.

I think there is a place for GMOs, but we all need to remember that the food industry only cares about you and your families health to the extent that it affects their bottom line. They can get away with selling crap food because the effects are not immediately observable and difficult to expose. The shallow bovine masses trusting the food supply to profit motivated corporations like Monsanto is a recipe for disaster.

Finally a plug for IMO a much better option that the Europeans would agree with: http://www.ota.com/organic/environment/environmental.html

Chris T said at June 23, 2010 8:46 PM:

Shorter anti-GMO: Creating a useful DNA sequence through thousands of years of artificial selection is fine and natural, but the minute you splice that same sequence into a genome it magically gains a host of new characteristics that will lead to Godzilla.

Shorter organic: Ignore the laws of thermodynamics as we count the increased labor requirements as free energy when we compare it to industrial methods.

Steve said at June 23, 2010 10:31 PM:

This argument would hold more water if the US and Europe weren't experiencing giant, recurring agricultural surpluses due to massive crop subsidy programs...and before you say "But that can feed Africa/other infertile areas," consider the CO2 impact of transportation.

This argument fails.

Further, (in response to Chris T's comment) when assessing the impact of industrial agriculture, you must take into account building all the machinery as well as fueling it, as well as the transportation cost for producing food far from where it is consumed. Most importantly, the energy cost of the Haber process to produce ammonium nitrate is tremendous, consuming 3-5 percent of the world natural gas supply! And we're not even counting the destruction of topsoil (proceeding at >=1%/year), the contamination of drinking water...Industrial agriculture only looks like a solution because its costs are strongly externalized.

Randall Parker said at June 24, 2010 9:07 PM:


Industrial agriculture looks like a solution because without it the world is drastically overpopulated.

I repeat: Industrial agriculture both made possible the huge surge in human populations in the last couple hundred years and becomes a necessity because of that huge surge in populations.

Criticizing industrial argiculture and genetically modified crop plants amounts to attacking the wrong problem. The problems of industrial agriculture are a result of population growth. With only, say, 1 billion people on the planet industrial agriculture would have far smaller external costs. But then having billions fewer people on the planet would have few smaller external costs.

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