World Agriculture and the Environment

Posted: 14 April 2004

Author: Jason Clay
Island Press, April 2004, US$35.00 pb

Agriculture - the largest industry in the world - is one of the biggest threats to the environment. Inefficient food production and harmful agriculture subsidies are causing deforestation, water shortages and pollution, warns this book.

Cover of World Agriculture and the Environment by Jason Clay
Cover of World Agriculture and the Environment by Jason Clay
The book argues that while agriculture employs an estimated 1.3 billion people and produces approximately US$1.3 trillion worth of goods annually, it also contributes to serious environmental, social, and economic problems, particularly in developing countries. According to Dr Jason Clay, author of the book and Vice President of the Center for Conservation Innovation at WWF-US, agriculture uses more than 50 per cent of the habitable area of the planet, including land not suitable for it. This is destroying 130,000 sq km of forests annually (an area more than four times the size of Switzerland), as well as critical habitats such as savannahs, montane areas and wetlands.

The book highlights palm oil as the commodity posing the biggest threat to endangered large mammals. Asian elephant, Sumatran rhinoceros, orangutan, and tiger populations are all declining because palm oil plantations are encroaching on their habitats. According to Dr Jason Clay agriculture wastes 60 per cent, or 1,500 trillion litres, of the 2,500 trillion litres of water that it uses each year. Water resources are already being used close to or beyond their limit, particularly in the Americas, North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, China, and India. The impacts of global warming are likely to further disrupt water supplies. "Agriculture has had a larger environmental impact than any other human activity and today it threatens the very systems we need to meet our food and textile needs," said Dr Clay. "New kinds of agriculture can produce the food needed to feed an increasing population and still accommodate all the other life forms on the planet." The book warns that government subsidies currently encourage intensive monoculture farming practices, which use chemicals and heavy machinery harmful to the environment. In England, for example, this has led to a 77 per cent decrease in bird populations over the past 30 years. The book recommends that governments - especially those of big consuming countries like China, Japan, the United States, and the EU - redirect funding from subsidies and market barriers that promote unfair competition towards the adoption of better management practices. These include government payments for environmental services that farmers provide, such as watershed protection, erosion prevention, clean water, and carbon sequestration. The author calls on governments to work with farmers and the food industry to develop better management practices to increase efficiency and reduce damage to the environment.