Impact of intensive farming on biodiversity

17 December 2019

Intensive farming is considered to be among the major drivers of biodiversity loss, second only to the loss of natural habitat due to farmland expansion. At the same time, intensification as the outcome of global economic growth and development of new technologies enabled the farming sector to increase yields and produce more food, thus contributing to ensuring of global food security. In the past 50 years, the global crop production almost tripled while farmland area increased 30%.

Having increasingly more opportunities to access modern technologies as compared to smaller farms, large agricultural enterprises are implementing innovations and solutions that help to boost efficiency worldwide. However, modern methods of agricultural production used by large farms, e.g. monocropping, applying synthetic fertilizers and agrochemicals alongside using heavy machinery, harm the wildlife and, thus, are often in conflict with the societal goal of preserving biodiversity.

At the moment, the world faces the challenge of increasing food supply while saving the environment. In an attempt to understand the role of large-scale farms in overcoming this challenge, scrutinized existing evidence on the impact of intensive farming on biodiversity.

Agrochemicals and biodiversity

Agrochemicals include a wide range of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and hormones used in agriculture to prevent crop diseases, kill the weeds and pests and boost plant growth. These chemical agents are toxic for wildlife as well as for humans. In particular, agrochemicals are often associated with reduction of the populations of birds, amphibians and insects (bees, butterflies) through destroying their food source, contaminating soil and ground waters.

Research shows that insects were affected most seriously as compared to other species. The global populations of insects have allegedly fallen by over 50% since 1970 due to massive use of pesticides. Also, intensive use of agrochemicals is among the key drivers behind the dramatic scenario for the next decades envisaging the extinction of 40% of the remaining insect species. Another study reports a 48-times increase in toxicity of pesticides to insects in the USA within the last 25 years, mainly due to intensive use of neonicotinoid pesticides, or neonics. In the province of Quebec, Canada, over 600,000 hectares of fields are sown with neonicotinoid-coated corn and soybean seeds annually. This class of pesticides is especially dangerous for bees. Settling on flowers and flowering trees near the fields during corn sowing time, the toxic dust is able to instantly kill the bees that came to collect the nectar.

However, not only insect diversity is affected by the use of pesticides. Since 1980, the total population of farmland birds across Europe fell by 300 million birds, and Canada and the U.S. observed a 74% decline in the farmland bird species from 1966 to 2013. Studies associate such significant reduction with agrochemicals, habitat loss, overall intensification of agriculture and climate change.

For years, environmentalists all over the world have been warning policy-makers that the “silent spring” soon might become a reality and pressing them to take action. This made the authorities around the world to ban the most dangerous agrochemicals. For instance, the EU banned the use of neonicotinoids associated with the destruction of bee hives in 2018 while the US banned 12 types of pest-killing products containing neonicotinoids. Since 1970, 134 pesticides have been discontinued in the United States in total. However, only 37 of them have been prohibited. Among the world’s largest agricultural producers and users of agrochemicals, the USA tends to regulate the use of pesticides most reluctantly. In particular, quarter of all pesticides used in the USA in 2016 were already banned in the EU.

Monocropping and biodiversity

Over the past 50 years, there has been a trend toward a decline in the number of farms alongside increase in farm size worldwide. For instance, Canadian farms almost doubled in size while US farms grew 16% since 1960s. At the same time, the diversity of crops cultivated by large-scale farms has been reducing. As of 2014, 50% of the world’s farmland area, operated mostly by large farms across Asia, Europe, North and South America was dominated by just four crops - soybeans, wheat, rice and corn.

Monocropping allows large farms to maximize profits at lower costs. Nevertheless, research shows that poor crop varieties on larger fields cause reduction in farmland bird species mainly due to a decline in field margins which provide food source, nesting sites and shelter for birds. Additionally, decrease in crop diversity might provoke susceptibility to pests or diseases among crops and accordingly escalating the use of agrochemicals

Numerous studies and social initiatives are calling for conversion to more sustainable agricultural practices due to their favorable effect on ecosystems and biodiversity. However, their opponents reveal the other side of the coin and present the research results that disclose the negative consequences of nature-friendly farming methods like decreasing yields and farm efficiency as well as growing prices for food, insisting that it would be impossible to return to extensive agriculture on a global scale. Still, the question remains open whether all relevant stakeholders will manage to find a common solution for the two global controversial trends – growing demand for food and upcoming environmental crisis. 

By Anna Feshchenko