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Stanford Experts Find High-Yield Agriculture Slows Global Warming
According to a new study developed by researchers at Stanford University, advances in conventional agriculture have prevented massive amounts of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere.
By reducing the amount of biomass burned and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions when forests or grasslands are cleared for farming, the researchers calculate that 590 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions have been avoided.
“Our results dispel the notion that modern intensive agriculture is inherently worse for the environment than a more ‘old-fashioned’ way of doing things,” said Jennifer Burney, lead author of a paper describing the study published online by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in June, 2010.
Burney, a postdoctoral researcher with the Program on Food and Security and the Environment at Stanford, said agriculture accounts for about 12 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Although greenhouse gas emissions from the production and use of fertilizer have increased with agricultural intensification, those emissions are far outstripped by the emissions that would have been generated in converting additional forest and grassland to farmland.
“Every time forest or shrub land is cleared for farming, the carbon that was tied up in the biomass is released and rapidly makes its way into the atmosphere – usually by being burned,” she said. “Yield intensification has lessened the pressure to clear land and reduced emissions by up to 13 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year.”
“When we look at the costs of the research and development that went into these improvements, we find that funding agricultural research ranks among the cheapest ways to prevent greenhouse gas emissions,” said Steven Davis, a co-author of the paper and a postdoctoral researcher at the Carnegie Institution at Stanford.
The researchers concluded that improvement of crop yields should be prominent among a portfolio of strategies to reduce global greenhouse gases emissions.
Read the full report: Greenhouse gas mitigation by agricultural intensification.