Agricultural land occupies an astonishing five billion hectares around the world, representing almost 40% of the earth’s land area. About a third is used for plantations, while the rest consists of pasture for livestock such as cattle.

This leaves precious virgin land for truly untouched ecosystems, but there is a way to increase the ratio of natural habitats: by making agricultural practices as profitable as possible. Thus, relatively small areas should be sufficient for cultivation, leaving more land preserved as a natural habitat.

According to a British scientist, who has evaluated more than 2,500 species of plants, insects and vertebrates on five continents, he has come to the conclusion that so-called land conservation, which involves restoring or creating natural habitats in agricultural landscapes, can be very beneficial. for wildlife.

The practice of growing more food on less land will also be critical as the planet’s human population continues to increase at a rapid rate, especially in already overcrowded areas like Africa and the Indian subcontinent.

“Discovering how to feed, clothe and power 11 billion people without causing mass species extinction and ruining the climate is the biggest challenge of this century. Preserving a diverse life while meeting the needs of humanity will pay big dividends, but the evidence is starting to point in a direction,” explains Andrew Balmford, professor of conservation science at Cambridge University in the UK.

“Most species do much better if habitats are kept intact, which means reducing the space needed for agriculture. Therefore, the cultivated areas must be as productive as possible”, he adds.

Europe with no space for wildlife

In many countries in Europe and elsewhere, there is already very little land left for natural habitats. In England alone, one-fifth of cultivated land will need to be repopulated at least to some extent, experts said. At the same time, the lowest-yielding cultivated land, which occupies a third of all agricultural land in the country, produces only 15% of English agricultural production.

“Most species are specialized in particular environments. Even minor shocks reduce their populations. That’s why so many species decline even with milder cultivations”, says the scientist.

However, even uneven landscapes of natural habitat and high-yield farmland can serve to preserve a variety of wildlife species, allowing them to thrive, says Balmford. After just 4 square kilometers of wetlands near Lakenheath in eastern England were restored in the late 1990s, herons once again thrived in the area and cranes that hadn’t been seen there for three centuries have also returned.

In addition to the wildlife conservation benefits, high-yield agriculture will also sequester more carbon per area due to the greater density of vegetation in a given location. At the same time, if around 30% of UK land were set aside for forests and wetlands, the vegetation there could store enough carbon to offset nearly all emissions from UK agriculture by 2050, says Balmford.

However, for all its many benefits, high-yield agriculture must be done in a way that is as environmentally friendly as possible, because industrial production often carries higher levels of pollution and other environmental hazards.

Adopt nature-based agricultural solutions

One such solution has been adopted by millions of small farmers in China, who have begun to adapt their practices to local soil and climatic conditions, allowing them to increase their productivity by 11%, even as they reduce their need for fertilizers by one-sixth. .

“The cultivation of carp in rice fields – fish eat pests, provide fertilizer through their faeces and are themselves an additional crop – is another of the many possibilities used by natural ecosystems. Emerging technologies such as rice-led photosynthesis also offer hope for high sustainable yields ​​,” he notes.

Meanwhile, in New Zealand, a “respectful” approach to its forests has resulted in the protection of more than 70% of local forests, while timber is heavily harvested in smaller pine plantations.

By Daniel T. Cross. Article in English

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