Better farming yields reduce the need for farming land:
The world’s population is still growing and will be for some time yet to come.  One of two things must happen.  We could all eat less food.  For some that might not be bad, but on average that would not be good.  Or we could grow more food.  That means either increasing the amount of food produced per acre or putting more acres under cultivation.  But the amount of new land that would be required would be a lot, and that land would have to come from land now wild resulting in greater environmental damage.

The other answer is to use more land efficient means of farming, in other words modern farming methods where there is now more traditional farming.  The question is whether that would in itself produce environmental damage, particularly by increasing C02 emissions.  The question has now been studied.  (Intensive Farming May Ease Climate Change, NATURE vol. 465 no. 7300 June 17, 2010 page 853)  It turns out that the agribusiness approach of using the most modern methods does indeed produce less C02 than more traditional close-to-the-earth methods.  That is largely because less land must be taken from the wild.

On the face of it that is good news.  The way forward seems to be to continue the way things are going now.  But there is a catch.

Those parts of the world that do not use modern farming techniques are the very parts of the world where there are high birthrates.  And those birthrates depend on living in traditional villages that use traditional farming.  Not only are those birth rates high, but they are also high enough so that there is reasonable hope that an understanding of the regulation of population size by fertility can become wisely understood before they go into irreversible decline.  After all, no matter how optimistic you are, there is a point of no return on the path to extinction.  One can speculate where that is, but it seems clear that the traditional world is the farthest from it. 

If we continue with business and ignorance as usual, modern farming techniques will be introduced into the poorer parts of the world in the name of limiting global warming.  There is reason to do it already, since it would mean economic growth for the countries involved, but if they do not want it then it seems wrong to push it at them.  In fact the argument can be made that it would be unfair to push modern farming onto traditional societies so that rich societies can continue burning fossil fuels to support their own consumptive habits. 

So the promise of the new study comes with a hidden cost.  Unless it is preceded by an understanding of fertility, it will imperil the last and best hope for our long term survival.

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