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Will Farming Destroy Wild Nature?
Volume 8, Number 15: 13 April 2005

In an article in Science entitled "Farming and the Fate of Wild Nature," Green et al. (2005) address a looming problem of incredible proportions and significance: how to meet the two- to three-fold increase in food demand that will exist by 2050 (Tilman et al., 2002; Bongaarts, 1996) without usurping for agriculture all the land that is currently available to what they call "wild nature."

The four scientists demonstrate the immediacy of the problem by discussing the relationship between farming and birds.  They begin by noting that "farming (including conversion to farmland and its intensifying use) is the single biggest source of threat to bird species listed as Threatened (accounting for 37% of threats) and is already substantially more important for species in developing countries than those in developed countries (40% and 24% of threats, respectively)," and by reporting that "for developing and developed countries alike, the scale of the threat posed by agriculture is even greater for Near-Threatened species (57% and 33% of threats, respectively)."

Clearly, a little more taking of land by agriculture will likely be devastating to several species of birds; and a lot more usurpation (using words employed by climate alarmists the world over) will likely be catastrophically deadly to many of them, and numerous other animals as well.  So how does one solve the problem and keep from driving innumerable species to extinction (using more words that climate alarmists relish) and still feed the masses of humanity that will inhabit the planet a mere 45 years hence?

The answer is simple: one has to raise more food without appreciably increasing the amounts of land and water used to do it.  The problem is that it is getting more and more difficult to do so.  Already, in fact, Green et al. report that annual growth in yield is now higher in the developing world than it is in the developed world, which suggests we may be approaching the upper limits of the benefits to be derived from the types of technology that served us so well over the last four decades of the 20th century, when global food production outstripped population growth and kept us largely ahead of the hunger curve, at least where political unrest did not keep food from reaching the tables of those who needed it.

This is also the conclusion of Green et al., who report that "evidence from a range of taxa in developing countries suggests that high-yield farming may allow more species to persist."  But will the high-yield farming we are capable of developing in the coming years be high enough to keep the loss of wild nature's land at an acceptable minimum?

This question was addressed by Idso and Idso (2000), who developed a supply-and-demand scenario for food in the year 2050.  Specifically, they identified the plants that currently supply 95% of the world's food needs and projected historical trends in the productivities of these crops 50 years into the future.  They also evaluated the growth-enhancing effects of atmospheric CO2 enrichment on these plants and made similar yield projections based on the increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration likely to occur by that future date.  This work indicated that world population would be 51% greater in the year 2050 than it was in 1998, but that world food production would be only 37% greater, if its enhanced productivity were solely a consequence of anticipated improvements in agricultural technology and expertise.  However, they determined that the consequent shortfall in farm production could be overcome - but just barely - by the additional benefits anticipated to accrue from the aerial fertilization effect of the expected rise in the air's CO2 content, assuming no Kyoto-style cutbacks in anthropogenic CO2 emissions.

Clearly, there are two sides to the story of what anthropogenic CO2 emissions may do to and/or for wild nature.  Climate alarmists speak only of the former of these alternatives, decrying the possibility of CO2-induced global warming and its claimed potential to drive numerous species of plants and animals to extinction (see our Major Report The Specter of Species Extinction: Will Global Warming Decimate Earth's Biosphere?).  We at CO2 Science, on the other hand, address both of these issues, recognizing the fact that the precautionary principle is a two-edged sword that cuts both ways.  We cannot create informed energy policy by closing our eyes to the devastating war that will be waged by humanity upon wild nature if we deny ourselves (and nature) the biological benefits that come from atmospheric CO2 enrichment.

Sherwood, Keith and Craig Idso

Bongaarts, J.  1996.  Population and Development Review 22: 483.

Green, R.E., Cornell, S.J., Scharlemann, J.P.W. and Balmford, A.  2005.  Farming and the fate of wild nature.  Science 307: 550-555.

Idso, C.D. and Idso, K.E.  2000.  Forecasting world food supplies: The impact of the rising atmospheric CO2 concentration.  Technology 7S: 33-56.

Tilman, D., Cassman, K.G., Matson, P.A., Naylor, R. and Polasky, S.  2002.  Agricultural sustainability and intensive production practices.  Nature 418: 671-677.