I have it on my long to-do list to start a series about yield and why it matters. I’ve made the point with some of my colleagues that although yield is a positive term for farmers, it doesn’t resonate much with the general public. That’s because 1) it’s primarily agriculture terminology and 2) our American culture has equated productivity and efficiency with a lack of quality and a loss of artistry/skill.
Yield matters for a variety of reasons, but one was illuminated this week in a new study released by Stanford Earth researchers: Increases in crop yields may slow the pace of global warming.
The study’s authors estimated agricultural emissions from 1961-2005. (Agriculture presently accounts for 12% of greenhouse gases). During that time, crop yields increased by 135%. The researchers compared those emissions to alternative scenarios. Say, instead of increasing yield on existing land over the last 44 years, what if we had converted more land into farmland in order to produce enough food for the population? What would the emissions be then?
The full study can be found in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Here are some highlights:
- Advances in high-yield agriculture have prevented massive amounts of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere—the equivalent of 590 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide.
- 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 calculated that for every dollar spent on agricultural research and development since 1961, emissions of the three principal greenhouse gases – methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide – were reduced by the equivalent of about a quarter of a ton of carbon dioxide – a high rate of financial return compared to other approaches to reducing the gases.
- 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.
- “It has been shown in several contexts that yield gains alone do not necessarily stop expansion of cropland,” said David Lobell, one of the study’s authors. “That suggests that intensification must be coupled with conservation and development efforts. In certain cases, when yields go up in an area, it increases the profitability of farming there and gives people more incentive to expand their farm. But in general, high yields keep prices low, which reduces the incentive to expand.”
- The researchers concluded that improvement of crop yields should be prominent among a portfolio of strategies to reduce global greenhouse gases emissions.
Yield continues to be an important driver for Monsanto’s research. Productivity and efficiency matter for our customers because it’s how they earn a living, but quality–in regards to product and to the Earth’s natural resources –is what enables them to continue farming.