What are the Environmental Costs of Moving Toward Lower Yielding Cropping Systems?

Here are the conclusions from an article just published online in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics

Crop yield development will play a critical role in future land use dynamics. Indeed, it will determine the requirements for additional cropland, and also have a strong impact on grassland expansion. We have illustrated that compared with yield stagnation, maintaining past trends in crop yield growth would save 290 Mha of cropland and avoid additional expansion of about 120 Mha of grassland by 2030. Our results suggest that failing to take into account the effects of livestock sector dynamics and the corresponding grassland requirements when assessing the effect on land sparing of increasing crop yield may lead to significant inaccuracy–a difference of 17% in our example.
With respect to GHG emissions, we show that by 2030 these would be lower by more than 2 GtCO2-eq per year if crop yields grew according to the past trends as compared to yield stagnation. Crop yield growth also seems to be a cost efficient way of abating GHGs, as the estimated R&D cost involved would be about U.S. $25 per tCO2-eq, while the marginal cost of reaching this target with stagnating yields would be U.S. $75 per tCO2-eq. However, to be effective as a mitigation option, crop yield increases need to be accompanied by policies that prevent further expansion of consumption in rich countries in order to avoid the potential rebound effects illustrated by Choi et al. (2011).
Overall, policies and investments targeting crop yield enhancement should be an important priority for the future of agricultural development (Herrero et al. 2010). Such measures could help to fight food insecurity, while at the same time contributing to climate change mitigation at a cost that is competitive with other mitigation strategies.