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Environmental impact of agriculture

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The environmental impact of agriculture is the effect that different farming practices have on the ecosystems around them, and how those effects can be traced back to those practices. The environmental impact of agriculture varies widely based on practices employed by farmers and by the scale of practice. Farming communities that try to reduce environmental impacts through modifying their practices will adopt sustainable agriculture practices. The negative impact of agriculture is an old issue that remains a concern even as experts design innovative means to reduce destruction and enhance eco-efficiency.[1] Though some pastoralism is environmentally positive, modern animal agriculture practices tend to be more environmentally destructive than agricultural practices focused on fruits, vegetables and other biomass. The emissions of ammonia from cattle waste continues to raise concerns over environmental pollution.[2]

When evaluating environmental impact, experts use two types of indicators: "means-based", which is based on the farmer's production methods, and "effect-based", which is the impact that farming methods have on the farming system or on emissions to the environment. An example of a means-based indicator would be the quality of groundwater, that is affected by the amount of nitrogen applied to the soil. An indicator reflecting the loss of nitrate to groundwater would be effect-based.[3] The means-based evaluation looks at farmers' practices of agriculture, and the effect-based evaluation considers the actual effects of the agricultural system. For example, the means-based analysis might look at pesticides and fertilisation methods that farmers are using, and effect-based analysis would consider how much CO2 is being emitted or what the nitrogen content of the soil is.[3]

The environmental impact of agriculture involves impacts on a variety of different factors: the soil, to water, the air, animal and soil variety, people, plants, and the food itself. Agriculture contributes to a number larger of environmental issues that cause environmental degradation including: climate change, deforestation, biodiversity loss, dead zones, genetic engineering, irrigation problems, pollutants, soil degradation, and waste.[4] Because of agriculture's importance to global social and environmental systems, the international community has committed to increasing sustainability of food production as part of Sustainable Development Goal 2: “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture".[5] The United Nations Environment Programme's 2021 "Making Peace with Nature" report highlighted agriculture as both a driver and an industry under threat from environmental degradation.[6]

By agricultural practice

Animal agriculture

The environmental impact of meat production varies because of the wide variety of agricultural practices employed around the world. All agricultural practices have been found to have a variety of effects on the environment. Some of the environmental effects that have been associated with meat production are pollution through fossil fuel usage, animal methane, effluent waste, and water and land consumption. Meat is obtained through a variety of methods, including organic farming, free range farming, intensive livestock production, subsistence agriculture, hunting, and fishing.

Nutritional value and environmental impact of animal products, compared to agriculture overall[7]
Categories Contribution of farmed animal product [%]
Calories
18
Proteins
37
Land use
83
Greenhouse gases
58
Water pollution
57
Air pollution
56
Freshwater withdrawals
33

Meat is considered one of the prime factors contributing to the current biodiversity loss crisis.[8][9][10][11][12] The 2019 IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services found that industrial agriculture and overfishing are the primary drivers of the extinction, with the meat and dairy industries having a substantial impact.[13][14] The 2006 report Livestock's Long Shadow, released by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, states that "the livestock sector is a major stressor on many ecosystems and on the planet as a whole. Globally it is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases (GHG) and one of the leading causal factors in the loss of biodiversity, and in developed and emerging countries it is perhaps the leading source of water pollution."[15]

Meat production is a major driver of climate change. A 2017 study published in the journal Carbon Balance and Management found animal agriculture's global methane emissions are 11% higher than previous estimates based on data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.[16] Some fraction of these effects is assignable to non-meat components of the livestock sector such as the wool, egg and dairy industries, and to the livestock used for tillage. Livestock have been estimated to provide power for tillage of as much as half of the world's cropland.[17] Multiple studies have found that increases in meat consumption associated with human population growth and rising individual incomes will increase carbon emissions and further biodiversity loss.[18][19] On August 8, 2019, the IPCC released a summary of the 2019 special report which asserted that a shift towards plant-based diets would help to mitigate and adapt to climate change.[20]

Irrigation

The first environmental effect is increased crop growth such as in the Rubaksa gardens in Ethiopia
The first environmental effect is increased crop growth such as in the Rubaksa gardens in Ethiopia
The irrigation that grows crops, especially in dry countries, can also be responsible for taxing aquifers beyond their capacities. Groundwater depletion is embedded in the international food trade, with countries exporting crops grown from overexploited aquifers and setting up potential future food crises if the aquifers run dry.

The environmental effects of irrigation relate to the changes in quantity and quality of soil and water as a result of irrigation and the subsequent effects on natural and social conditions in river basins and downstream of an irrigation scheme. The effects stem from the altered hydrological conditions caused by the installation and operation of the irrigation scheme.

Among some of these problems is the depletion of underground aquifers through overdrafting. Soil can be over-irrigated because of poor distribution uniformity or management wastes water, chemicals, and may lead to water pollution. Over-irrigation can cause deep drainage from rising water tables that can lead to problems of irrigation salinity requiring watertable control by some form of subsurface land drainage. However, if the soil is under irrigated, it gives poor soil salinity control which leads to increased soil salinity with consequent buildup of toxic salts on soil surface in areas with high evaporation. This requires either leaching to remove these salts and a method of drainage to carry the salts away. Irrigation with saline or high-sodium water may damage soil structure owing to the formation of alkaline soil.

Pesticides

A farmworker wearing protective equipment poring a concentrated pesticide into a tank with water in order to spray a hazardous pesticide
Drainage of fertilizers and pesticides into a stream
Pesticides being sprayed onto a  recently plowed field by tractor. Ariel spraying is a main source of pesticide drift and application on loose topsoil increases the chance of runoff into waterways/
Pesticides being sprayed onto a recently plowed field by tractor. Ariel spraying is a main source of pesticide drift and application on loose topsoil increases the chance of runoff into waterways/

The environmental effects of pesticides describe the broad series of consquences of using pesticides. The unintended consequences of pesticides is one of the main drivers of the negative impact of modern industrial agriculture on the environment. Pesticides, because they are toxic chemicals meant to kill pest species, can effect non-target species, such as plants, animals and humans. Over 98% of sprayed insecticides and 95% of herbicides reach a destination other than their target species, because they are sprayed or spread across entire agricultural fields.[21] Other agrochemicals, such as fertilizers, can also have negative effects on the environment.

The negative effects of pesticides are not just in the area of application. Runoff and pesticide drift can carry pesticides into distant aquatic environments or other fields, grazing areas, human settlements and undeveloped areas. Other problems emerge from poor production, transport, storage and disposal practices.[22] Over time, repeat application of pesticides increases pest resistance, while its effects on other species can facilitate the pest's resurgence.[23] Alternatives to heavy use of pesticides, such as integrated pest management, and sustainable agriculture techniques such as polyculture mitigate these consequences, without the harmful toxic chemical application.

Environmental modelling indicates that globally over 60% of global agricultural land (~24.5 million km²) is "at risk of pesticide pollution by more than one active ingredient", and that over 30% is at "high risk" of which a third are in high-biodiversity regions.[24][25] Each pesticide or pesticide class comes with a specific set of environmental concerns. Such undesirable effects have led many pesticides to be banned, while regulations have limited and/or reduced the use of others. The global spread of pesticide use, including the use of older/obsolete pesticides that have been banned in some jurisdictions, has increased overall.[26][27]

Plastics

Plastic mulch used for growing strawberries
Plastic mulch used for growing strawberries

The term plasticulture refers to the practice of using plastic materials in agricultural applications. The plastic materials themselves are often and broadly referred to as "ag plastics". Plasticulture ag plastics include soil fumigation film, irrigation drip tape/tubing, plastic plant packaging cord, nursery pots and bales, but the term is most often used to describe all kinds of plastic plant/soil coverings. Such coverings range from plastic mulch film, row coverings, high and low tunnels (polytunnels), to plastic greenhouses.

Plastic used in agriculture was expected to include 6.7 million tons of plastic in 2019 or 2% of global plastic production .[28] Plastic used in agriculture is hard to recycle because of contamination by agricultural chemicals.[28] Moreover, plastic degradation into microplastics is damaging to soil health, microorganisms and beneficial organism like earth worms.[28][29] Current science is not clear if there are negative impacts on food or once food grown in plasticulture is eaten by humans.[28] Due to these impacts, some governments, like the European Union under the Circular Economy Action Plan, are beginning to regulate it's use and plastic waste produced on farms.

By environmental issue

Climate change

Climate change and agriculture are interrelated processes, both of which take place on a worldwide scale. Global warming is projected to have significant impacts on conditions affecting agriculture, including temperature, precipitation and glacial run-off. These conditions determine the carrying capacity of the biosphere to produce enough food for the human population and domesticated animals. Rising carbon dioxide levels would also have effects, both detrimental and beneficial, on crop yields. Assessment of the effects of global climate changes on agriculture might help to properly anticipate and adapt farming to maximize agricultural production. Although the net impact of climate change on agricultural production is uncertain it is likely that it will shift the suitable growing zones for individual crops. Adjustment to this geographical shift will involve considerable economic costs and social impacts.

At the same time, agriculture has been shown to produce significant effects on climate change, primarily through the production and release of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. In addition, agriculture that practices tillage, fertilization, and pesticide application also releases ammonia, nitrate, phosphorus, and many other pesticides that affect air, water, and soil quality, as well as biodiversity.[3] Agriculture also alters the Earth's land cover, which can change its ability to absorb or reflect heat and light, thus contributing to radiative forcing. Land use change such as deforestation and desertification, together with use of fossil fuels, are the major anthropogenic sources of carbon dioxide; agriculture itself is the major contributor to increasing methane and nitrous oxide concentrations in earth's atmosphere.[30]

Most of the methane emissions result from the use of livestock, in particular ruminants such as cattle and pigs. Other livestock, such as poultry and fish, have a far lower impact.[31] Some solutions are being developed to counter the emissions of ruminants. Strategies include using biogas from manure,[32] genetic selection,[33][34] immunisation, rumen defaunation, outcompetition of methanogenic archaea with acetogens,[35] introduction of methanotrophic bacteria into the rumen,[36][37] diet modification and grazing management, among others.[38][39][40] Certain diet changes (such as with Asparagopsis taxiformis) allow for a reduction of up to 99% in ruminant greenhouse gas emissions.[41][42] Due to these negative impacts, but also for reasons of farming efficiency (see Food vs. feed), one projection mentions a large decline of livestock at least some animals (i.e. cattle) in certain countries by 2030.[43][44]

Deforestation

Deforestation is clearing the Earth's forests on a large scale worldwide and resulting in many land damages. One of the causes of deforestation is to clear land for pasture or crops. According to British environmentalist Norman Myers, 5% of deforestation is due to cattle ranching, 19% due to over-heavy logging, 22% due to the growing sector of palm oil plantations, and 54% due to slash-and-burn farming.[45]

Deforestation causes the loss of habitat for millions of species, and is also a driver of climate change. Trees act as a carbon sink: that is, they absorb carbon dioxide, an unwanted greenhouse gas, out of the atmosphere. Removing trees releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and leaves behind fewer trees to absorb the increasing amount of carbon dioxide in the air. In this way, deforestation exacerbates climate change. When trees are removed from forests, the soils tend to dry out because there is no longer shade, and there are not enough trees to assist in the water cycle by returning water vapor back to the environment. With no trees, landscapes that were once forests can potentially become barren deserts. The removal of trees also causes extreme fluctuations in temperature.[46]

In 2000 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) found that "the role of population dynamics in a local setting may vary from decisive to negligible," and that deforestation can result from "a combination of population pressure and stagnating economic, social and technological conditions."[47]

Genetic engineering

Pollutants

Water pollution due to dairy farming in the Wairarapa area of New Zealand (photographed in 2003)
Water pollution due to dairy farming in the Wairarapa area of New Zealand (photographed in 2003)


Agricultural pollution refers to biotic and abiotic byproducts of farming practices that result in contamination or degradation of the environment and surrounding ecosystems, and/or cause injury to humans and their economic interests. The pollution may come from a variety of sources, ranging from point source water pollution (from a single discharge point) to more diffuse, landscape-level causes, also known as non-point source pollution and air pollution. Once in the environment these pollutants can have both direct effects in surrounding ecosystems, i.e. killing local wildlife or contaminating drinking water, and downstream effects such as dead zones caused by agricultural runoff is concentrated in large water bodies.

Management practices, or ignorance of them, play a crucial role in the amount and impact of these pollutants. Management techniques range from animal management and housing to the spread of pesticides and fertilizers in global agricultural practices. Bad management practices include poorly managed animal feeding operations, overgrazing, plowing, fertilizer, and improper, excessive, or badly timed use of pesticides.

Pollutants from agriculture greatly affect water quality and can be found in lakes, rivers, wetlands, estuaries, and groundwater. Pollutants from farming include sediments, nutrients, pathogens, pesticides, metals, and salts.[48] Animal agriculture has an outsized impact on pollutants that enter the environment. Bacteria and pathogens in manure can make their way into streams and groundwater if grazing, storing manure in lagoons and applying manure to fields is not properly managed.[49] Air pollution caused by agriculture through land use changes and animal agriculture practices have an outsized impact on climate change, and addressing these concerns were a central part of the IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land.[50]

Soil degradation

Soil degradation is the decline in soil quality that can be a result of many factors, especially from agriculture. Soils hold the majority of the world's biodiversity, and healthy soils are essential for food production and adequate water supply.[51] Common attributes of soil degradation can be salting, waterlogging, compaction, pesticide contamination, a decline in soil structure quality, loss of fertility, changes in soil acidity, alkalinity, salinity, and erosion. Soil erosion is the wearing away of topsoil by water, wind, or farming activities.[52] Topsoil is very fertile, which makes it valuable to farmers growing crops.[52] Soil degradation also has a huge impact on biological degradation, which affects the microbial community of the soil and can alter nutrient cycling, pest and disease control, and chemical transformation properties of the soil.[53]

Tillage erosion

Eroded hilltops due to tillage erosion
Eroded hilltops due to tillage erosion

Tillage erosion is a form of soil erosion occurring in cultivated fields due to the movement of soil by tillage.[54][55] There is growing evidence that tillage erosion is a major soil erosion process in agricultural lands, surpassing water and wind erosion in many fields all around the world, especially on sloping and hilly lands[56][57][58] A signature spatial pattern of soil erosion shown in many water erosion handbooks and pamphlets, the eroded hilltops, is actually caused by tillage erosion as water erosion mainly causes soil losses in the midslope and lowerslope segments of a slope, not the hilltops.[59][54][56] Tillage erosion results in soil degradation, which can lead to significant reduction in crop yield and, therefore, economic losses for the farm.[60][61]

Tillage erosion in field with diversion terraces
Tillage erosion in field with diversion terraces

Waste

Plasticulture is the use of plastic mulch in agriculture. Farmers use plastic sheets as mulch to cover 50-70% of the soil and allow them to use drip irrigation systems to have better control over soil nutrients and moisture. Rain is not required in this system, and farms that use plasticulture are built to encourage the fastest runoff of rain. The use of pesticides with plasticulture allows pesticides to be transported easier in the surface runoff towards wetlands or tidal creeks. The runoff from pesticides and chemicals in the plastic can cause serious deformations and death in shellfish as the runoff carries the chemicals towards the oceans.[62]

In addition to the increased runoff that results from plasticulture, there is also the problem of the increased amount of waste from the plastic mulch itself. The use of plastic mulch for vegetables, strawberries, and other row and orchard crops exceeds 110 million pounds annually in the United States. Most plastic ends up in the landfill, although there are other disposal options such as disking mulches into the soil, on-site burying, on-site storage, reuse, recycling, and incineration. The incineration and recycling options are complicated by the variety of the types of plastics that are used and by the geographic dispersal of the plastics. Plastics also contain stabilizers and dyes as well as heavy metals, which limits the number of products that can be recycled. Research is continually being conducted on creating biodegradable or photodegradable mulches. While there has been a minor success with this, there is also the problem of how long the plastic takes to degrade, as many biodegradable products take a long time to break down.[63]

Issues by region

The environmental impact of agriculture can vary depending on the region as well as the type of agriculture production method that is being used. Listed below are some specific environmental issues in various different regions around the world.

Sustainable agriculture

Sustainable agriculture is the idea that agriculture should occur in a way such that we can continue to produce what is necessary without infringing on the ability for future generations to do the same.

The exponential population increase in recent decades has increased the practice of agricultural land conversion to meet the demand for food which in turn has increased the effects on the environment. The global population is still increasing and will eventually stabilize, as some critics doubt that food production, due to lower yields from global warming, can support the global population.

Agriculture can have negative effects on biodiversity as well. Organic farming is a multifaceted sustainable agriculture set of practices that can have a lower impact on the environment at a small scale. However, in most cases organic farming results in lower yields in terms of production per unit area.[64] Therefore, widespread adoption of organic agriculture will require additional land to be cleared and water resources extracted to meet the same level of production. A European meta-analysis found that organic farms tended to have higher soil organic matter content and lower nutrient losses (nitrogen leaching, nitrous oxide emissions, and ammonia emissions) per unit of field area but higher ammonia emissions, nitrogen leaching and nitrous oxide emissions per product unit.[65] It is believed by many that conventional farming systems cause less rich biodiversity than organic systems. Organic farming has shown to have on average 30% higher species richness than conventional farming. Organic systems on average also have 50% more organisms. This data has some issues because there were several results that showed a negative effect on these things when in an organic farming system.[66] The opposition to organic agriculture believes that these negatives are an issue with the organic farming system. What began as a small scale, environmentally conscious practice has now become just as industrialized as conventional agriculture. This industrialization can lead to the issues shown above such as climate change, and deforestation.

Regenerative agriculture

Biodiversity
Biodiversity

Regenerative agriculture is a conservation and rehabilitation approach to food and farming systems. It focuses on topsoil regeneration, increasing biodiversity,[67] improving the water cycle,[68] enhancing ecosystem services, supporting biosequestration,[69] increasing resilience to climate change, and strengthening the health and vitality of farm soil.

Regenerative agriculture is not a specific practice itself. Rather, proponents of regenerative agriculture utilize a variety of other sustainable agriculture techniques in combination.[70] Practices include recycling as much farm waste as possible and adding composted material from sources outside the farm.[71][72][73][74] Regenerative agriculture on small farms and gardens is often based on philosophies like permaculture, agroecology, agroforestry, restoration ecology, keyline design, and holistic management. Large farms tend to be less philosophy driven and often use "no-till" and/or "reduced till" practices.

As soil health improves, input requirements may decrease, and crop yields may increase as soils are more resilient against extreme weather and harbor fewer pests and pathogens.[75]

Most plans to mitigate climate change focus on "reducing greenhouse gas emissions." Regenerative agriculture, i.e. the capture of atmospheric carbon dioxide by growing plants that move that carbon dioxide into the soil, is pretty nearly the only currently-functioning technology available for drawing down greenhouse gases that are already in the atmosphere, mostly through the cultivation and nurturing of forests and permanent perennial pastures and grasslands.

Hoverfly at work
Hoverfly at work

Techniques

Conservation tillage

Conservation tillage is an alternative tillage method for farming which is more sustainable for the soil and surrounding ecosystem.[76] This is done by allowing the residue of the previous harvest's crops to remain in the soil before tilling for the next crop. Conservation tillage has shown to improve many things such as soil moisture retention, and reduce erosion. Some disadvantages are the fact that more expensive equipment is needed for this process, more pesticides will need to be used, and the positive effects take a long time to be visible.[76] The barriers of instantiating a conservation tillage policy are that farmers are reluctant to change their methods, and would protest a more expensive, and time-consuming method of tillage than the conventional one they are used to.[77]

Biological pest control

Syrphus hoverfly larva (below) feed on aphids (above), making them natural biological control agents.
Syrphus hoverfly larva (below) feed on aphids (above), making them natural biological control agents.
A parasitoid wasp (Cotesia congregata) adult with pupal cocoons on its host, a tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta, green background), an example of a hymenopteran biological control agent
A parasitoid wasp (Cotesia congregata) adult with pupal cocoons on its host, a tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta, green background), an example of a hymenopteran biological control agent

Biological control or biocontrol is a method of controlling pests such as insects, mites, weeds and plant diseases using other organisms.[78] It relies on predation, parasitism, herbivory, or other natural mechanisms, but typically also involves an active human management role. It can be an important component of integrated pest management (IPM) programs.

There are three basic strategies for biological pest control: classical (importation), where a natural enemy of a pest is introduced in the hope of achieving control; inductive (augmentation), in which a large population of natural enemies are administered for quick pest control; and inoculative (conservation), in which measures are taken to maintain natural enemies through regular reestablishment.[79]

Natural enemies of insect pests, also known as biological control agents, include predators, parasitoids, pathogens, and competitors. Biological control agents of plant diseases are most often referred to as antagonists. Biological control agents of weeds include seed predators, herbivores, and plant pathogens.

Biological control can have side-effects on biodiversity through attacks on non-target species by any of the above mechanisms, especially when a species is introduced without a thorough understanding of the possible consequences.

See also

Report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

References

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