3.1.3 Intensive agriculture

Intensive agriculture is by far the biggest driver of global deforestation and wildlife loss and is severely damaging our soils and waters.

Our soils hold around 70% of the planet’s land-based carbon. However, when soil is repeatedly ploughed, the ability of the small creatures and microorganisms within it to store carbon is compromised and vast quantities are released back into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide. Conversely, compacting soil, for example by human traffic or livestock, also diminishes its capacity to hold carbon by creating oxygen-poor zones in the soil. (See section on soil degradation)

Intensive agriculture can also lead to the drying out of peatlands, which store twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests. (See section on loss of wetlands, peatlands and other natural ecosystems).

In addition, the nitrates released by chemical fertilisers can destroy wildlife in local rivers and lakes through a process called eutrophication. Plus, agricultural pesticides are strongly implicated in the declines of pollinators. Globally there has been a five-fold increase in pesticide use since 1950, with over 4 million tonnes sprayed annually. Screening in the US revealed that, from 1992-2014, toxicity for insects from pesticides in the environment increased 48-fold.

The IPCC estimates that, if the entire spectrum of food production were factored in - from growing crops to transportation and packaging - up to 37% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from the global food system. Switching over to less intensive farming techniques - requiring less heavy machinery, fewer chemical fertilisers and less international transport - would not only make a huge impact on global greenhouse gas emissions, but would help to restore our soils and our wildlife. Approaches such as organic farming can reduce damage to the natural world and degradation of soils and beneficial species such as pollinators , but must be combined with changes in diets to offset the lower yields.