Greenhouse gas mitigation by agricultural intensification

Edited by G. Philip Robertson, W. K. Kellogg Biological Station, Hickory Corners, MI, and accepted by the Editorial Board May 4, 2010 (received for review December 9, 2009)
June 15, 2010
107 (26) 12052-12057

Abstract

As efforts to mitigate climate change increase, there is a need to identify cost-effective ways to avoid emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Agriculture is rightly recognized as a source of considerable emissions, with concomitant opportunities for mitigation. Although future agricultural productivity is critical, as it will shape emissions from conversion of native landscapes to food and biofuel crops, investment in agricultural research is rarely mentioned as a mitigation strategy. Here we estimate the net effect on GHG emissions of historical agricultural intensification between 1961 and 2005. We find that while emissions from factors such as fertilizer production and application have increased, the net effect of higher yields has avoided emissions of up to 161 gigatons of carbon (GtC) (590 GtCO2e) since 1961. We estimate that each dollar invested in agricultural yields has resulted in 68 fewer kgC (249 kgCO2e) emissions relative to 1961 technology ($14.74/tC, or ∼$4/tCO2e), avoiding 3.6 GtC (13.1 GtCO2e) per year. Our analysis indicates that investment in yield improvements compares favorably with other commonly proposed mitigation strategies. Further yield improvements should therefore be prominent among efforts to reduce future GHG emissions.

Continue Reading

Acknowledgments

We thank three anonymous reviewers and W. Falcon, R. Naylor, P. Matson, J.E. Campbell, and M. Burke for their helpful comments. This work was supported by the Stanford University Program on Food Security and the Environment, the Stanford University Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP), the Carnegie Institution, and NASA New Investigator Grant NNX08AV25G (to D.B.L.).

Supporting Information

Supporting Information (PDF)
Supporting Information

References

1
; Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations statistical database, Available at: http://faostat.fao.org/. Accessed June 30, 2009.
2
NE Borlaug, Contributions of conventional plant breeding to food production. Science 219, 689–693 (1983).
3
PA Matson, WJ Parton, AG Power, MJ Swift, Agricultural intensification and ecosystem properties. Science 277, 504–509 (1997).
4
D Tilman, KG Cassman, PA Matson, R Naylor, S Polasky, Agricultural sustainability and intensive production practices. Nature 418, 671–677 (2002).
5
, eds A Angelsen, D Kaimowitz (CABI, Wallingford, UK Agricultural Technologies and Tropical Deforestation, 2001).
6
PM Vitousek, et al., Agriculture: Nutrient imbalances in agricultural development. Science 324, 1519–1520 (2009).
7
R Paarlberg, The ethics of modern agriculture. Society 46, 4–8 (2009).
8
A Balmford, RE Green, JP Scharlemann, Sparing land for nature: Exploring the potential impact of changes in agricultural yield on the area needed for crop production. Glob Change Biol 11, 1594–1605 (2005).
9
M Wise, et al., Implications of limiting CO2 concentrations for land use and energy. Science 324, 1183–1186 (2009).
10
P Smith, et al., Agriculture. Climate Change 2007: Mitigation Contribution of Working Group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, eds B Metz, O Davidson, P Bosch, R Dave, L Meyer (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK), pp. 497–540 (2007).
11
JG Canadell, et al., Contributions to accelerating atmospheric CO2 growth from economic activity, carbon intensity, and efficiency of natural sinks. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 104, 18866–18870 (2007).
12
; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Global Anthropogenic Non-CO2 Greenhouse Gas Emissions, 1990–2020. EPA Report 430-R-06-003. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, 2006).
13
TO West, G Marland, A synthesis of carbon sequestration, carbon emissions, and net carbon flux in agriculture: Comparing tillage practices in the United States. Agric Ecosyst Environ 91, 217–232 (2002).
14
X Yan, H Akiyama, K Yagi, H Akimoto, Global estimations of the inventory and mitigation potential of methane emissions from rice cultivation conducted using the 2006 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change guidelines. Global Biogeochem Cycles, 10.1029/2008GB003299. (2009).
15
R Lal, Soil carbon sequestration impacts on global climate change and food security. Science 304, 1623–1627 (2004).
16
TO West, WM Post, Soil organic carbon sequestration rates by tillage and crop rotation: A global data analysis. Soil Sci Soc Am J 66, 1930–1946 (2002).
17
T Gomiero, MG Paoletti, D Pimentel, Energy and environmental issues in organic and conventional agriculture. Crit Rev Plant Sci 27, 239–254 (2008).
18
AS Grandy, TD Loecke, S Parr, GP Robertson, Long-term trends in nitrous oxide emissions, soil nitrogen, and crop yields of till and no-till cropping systems. J Environ Qual 35, 1487–1495 (2006).
19
R Alvarez, A review of nitrogen fertilizer and conservation tillage effects on soil organic carbon storage. Soil Use Manage 21, 38–52 (2005).
20
P Smith, et al., Greenhouse gas mitigation in agriculture. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B 363, 789–813 (2008).
21
GP Robertson, EA Paul, RR Harwood, Greenhouse gases in intensive agriculture: Contributions of individual gases to the radiative forcing of the atmosphere. Science 289, 1922–1925 (2000).
22
RE Evenson, D Gollin, Assessing the impact of the green revolution, 1960 to 2000. Science 300, 758–762 (2003).
23
, eds RE Evenson, D Gollin (CABI, Wallingford, UK Crop Variety Improvement and Its Effect on Productivity: The Impact of International Agricultural Research, 2003).
24
P Heuveline, The global and regional impact of mortality and fertility transitions, 1950–2000. Popul Dev Rev 25, 681–702 (1999).
25
, TERRASTAT: Land resource potential and constraints statistics at country and regional levels. Available at: http://www.fao.org/ag/agl/agll/terrastat/. Accessed September 8, 2009.
26
N Ramankutty, JA Foley, Estimating historical changes in global land cover: Croplands from 1700 to 1992. Global Biogeochem Cycles 13, 997–1027 (1999).
27
HK Gibbs, et al., Carbon payback times for crop-based biofuel expansion in the tropics: The effects of changing yield and technology. Environ Res Lett 3, 034001 (2008).
28
HK Gibbs, S Brown, JO Niles, JA Foley, Monitoring and estimating tropical forest carbon stocks: Making REDD a reality. Environ Res Lett 2, 045023 (2007).
29
RA Houghton, The annual net flux of carbon to the atmosphere from changes in land use, 1850–1990. Tellus B 51, 298–313 (1999).
30
PG Pardey, N Beintema, S Dehmer, S Wood Agricultural Research: A Growing Global Divide? (Agricultural Science and Technology Indicators Initiative, International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, DC, 2006).
31
JM Alston, JM Beddow, PG Pardey, Agricultural research, productivity, and food prices in the long run. Science 325, 1209–1210 (2009).
32
RE Evenson, C Pray, MW Rosegrant Agricultural Research and Productivity Growth in India (International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, DC, 1998).
33
MW Rosegrant, RE Evenson, Agricultural productivity and sources of growth in South Asia. Am J Agric Econ 74, 757–761 (1992).
34
S Fan, PG Pardey, Research, productivity, and output growth in Chinese agriculture. J Dev Econ 53, 115–138 (1997).
35
RM Rejesus, PW Heisey, M Smale Sources of Productivity Growth in Wheat: A Review of Recent Performance and Medium- to Long-Term Prospects (Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maíz y Trigo, El Batan, Mexico), pp. 99–105 (1999).
36
T Barker, et al., Mitigation from a cross-sectoral perspective. Climate Change 2007: MitigationContribution of Working Group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, eds B Metz, O Davidson, P Bosch, R Dave, L Meyer (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK), pp. 619–690 (2007).
37
GP Robertson, PM Vitousek, Nitrogen in agriculture: Balancing the cost of an essential resource. Annu Rev Environ Resources 34, 97–125 (2009).
38
RM Ewers, JPW Scharlemann, A Balmford, RE Green, Do increases in agricultural yield spare land for nature? Glob Change Biol 15, 1716–1726 (2009).
39
RE Green, SJ Cornell, JP Scharlemann, A Balmford, Farming and the fate of wild nature. Science 307, 550–555 (2005).
40
PA Matson, PM Vitousek, Agricultural intensification: Will land spared from farming be land spared for nature? Conserv Biol 20, 709–710 (2006).
41
TK Rudel, et al., Agricultural intensification and changes in cultivated areas, 1970–2005. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 106, 20675–20680 (2009).
42
; Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations World Agriculture: Towards 2030/2050 (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, 2006).
43
SR Loarie, GP Asner, CB Field, Boosted carbon emissions from Amazon deforestation. Geophys Res Lett 36, L14810 (2009).
44
H Steinfeld, P Gerber, TD Wassenaar, V Castel, C de Haan Livestock's Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, 2006).
45
N Ramankutty, AT Evan, C Monfreda, JA Foley, Farming the planet, 1: Geographic distribution of global agricultural lands in the year 2000. Global Biogeochem Cycles 22, GB1003 (2008).
46
N Ramankutty, et al., Challenges to estimating carbon emissions from tropical deforestation. Glob Change Biol 13, 51–66 (2007).
47
, eds S Eggleston, L Buendia, K Miwa, T Ngara, K Tanabe (Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, Hayama, Japan 2006 IPCC Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories., 2006).
48
; US Department of Energy, Argonne National Laboratory, The Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy Use in Transportation (GREET) model, Version 1.8c.0., Available at: http://www.transportation.anl.gov/modeling_simulation/GREET/. Accessed March 23, 2009.
49
EA Davidson, The contribution of manure and fertilizer nitrogen to atmospheric nitrous oxide since 1860. Nat Geosci 2, 659–662 (2009).
50
A Mosier, et al., Closing the global N2O budget: Nitrous oxide emissions through the agricultural nitrogen cycle. Nutr Cycl Agroecosyst 52, 225–248 (1998).
51
X Yan, K Yagi, H Akiyama, H Akimoto, Statistical analysis of the major variables controlling methane emission from rice fields. Glob Change Biol 11, 1131–1141 (2005).
52
X Yan, T Ohara, H Akimoto, Bottom-up estimate of biomass burning in mainland China. Atmos Environ 40, 5262–5273 (2006).
53
R Yevich, JA Logan, An assessment of biofuel use and burning of agricultural waste in the developing world. Global Biogeochem Cycles, 10.1029/2002GB001952. (2003).
54
A Inocencio, et al. Costs and Performance of Irrigation Projects: A Comparison of Sub-Saharan Africa and Other Developing Regions. (International Water Management Institute, Battaramulla, Sri Lanka, 2007).

Information & Authors

Information

Published in

Go to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Go to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Vol. 107 | No. 26
June 29, 2010
PubMed: 20551223

Classifications

Submission history

Published online: June 15, 2010
Published in issue: June 29, 2010

Keywords

  1. agriculture
  2. greenhouse gas emissions
  3. land use change
  4. climate change mitigation
  5. carbon price

Acknowledgments

We thank three anonymous reviewers and W. Falcon, R. Naylor, P. Matson, J.E. Campbell, and M. Burke for their helpful comments. This work was supported by the Stanford University Program on Food Security and the Environment, the Stanford University Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP), the Carnegie Institution, and NASA New Investigator Grant NNX08AV25G (to D.B.L.).

Notes

This article is a PNAS Direct Submission. G.P.R. is a guest editor invited by the Editorial Board.
*The asymmetric error bars for the AW1 scenario result from periods of agricultural production decreases in the RW. IPCC Tier 1 guidelines use a 1-year time frame for carbon losses (i.e., agricultural land expansion), but a 20-year time frame for carbon gains (i.e., agricultural land contraction); see Methods for details.
Although our analysis focuses on the GHG emissions of intensification and extensification, each has additional important environmental consequences, such as the loss of fertilizers and pesticides into surrounding ecosystems from intensive systems or the biodiversity loss associated with land use change in extensive systems.
Furthermore, our estimates for emissions from land use change exclude pasture land and areas dedicated to biofuels, and neglect the projected increase in dietary preference for meat as per capita GDP grows.

Authors

Affiliations

Jennifer A. Burney1 [email protected]
Program on Food Security and the Environment and
Department of Environmental Earth System Science, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305 and
Steven J. Davis
Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution of Washington, Stanford, CA 94305
David B. Lobell
Program on Food Security and the Environment and
Department of Environmental Earth System Science, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305 and

Notes

1
To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail: [email protected].
Author contributions: J.A.B., S.J.D., and D.B.L. designed research; J.A.B., S.J.D., and D.B.L. performed research; J.A.B., S.J.D., and D.B.L. analyzed data; and J.A.B., S.J.D., and D.B.L. wrote the paper.

Competing Interests

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Metrics & Citations

Metrics

Note: The article usage is presented with a three- to four-day delay and will update daily once available. Due to ths delay, usage data will not appear immediately following publication. Citation information is sourced from Crossref Cited-by service.


Citation statements

Altmetrics

Citations

If you have the appropriate software installed, you can download article citation data to the citation manager of your choice. Simply select your manager software from the list below and click Download.

Cited by

    Loading...

    View Options

    View options

    PDF format

    Download this article as a PDF file

    DOWNLOAD PDF

    Get Access

    Login options

    Check if you have access through your login credentials or your institution to get full access on this article.

    Personal login Institutional Login

    Recommend to a librarian

    Recommend PNAS to a Librarian

    Purchase options

    Purchase this article to get full access to it.

    Single Article Purchase

    Greenhouse gas mitigation by agricultural intensification
    Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
    • Vol. 107
    • No. 26
    • pp. 11651-12058

    Media

    Figures

    Tables

    Other

    Share

    Share

    Share article link

    Share on social media