The environmental costs and benefits of high-yield farming

Andrew Balmford (Corresponding Author), Tatsuya Amano, Harriet Bartlett, Dave Chadwick, Adrian Collins, David Edwards, Rob Field, Philip Garnsworthy, Rhys Green, Pete Smith, Helen Waters, Andrew Whitmore, Donald Broom, Julian Chara, Tom Finch, Emma Garnett, Alfred Gathorne-Hardy, Juan Hernandez-Medrano, Mario Herrero, Fangyuan HuaAgnieszka Latawiec, Tom Misselbrook, Ben Phalan, Benno Simmons, Taro Takahashi, James Vause, Erasmus zu Ermgassen , Rowan Eisner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

187 Citations (Scopus)
49 Downloads (Pure)


How we manage farming and food systems to meet rising demand is pivotal to the future of biodiversity. Extensive field data suggest impacts on wild populations would be greatly reduced through boosting yields on existing farmland so as to spare remaining natural habitats. High-yield farming raises other concerns because expressed per unit area it can generate high levels of externalities such as greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and nutrient losses. However, such metrics underestimate the overall impacts of lower-yield systems, so here we develop a framework that instead compares externality and land costs per unit production. Applying this to diverse datasets describing the externalities of four major farm sectors reveals that, rather than involving trade offs, the externality and land costs of alternative production systems can co-vary positively: per 5 unit production, land-efficient systems often produce lower externalities. For GHG emissions these associations become more strongly positive once forgone sequestration is included. Our conclusions are limited: remarkably few studies report externalities alongside yields; many important externalities and farming systems are not adequately measured; and realising the environmental benefits of high-yield systems typically requires additional measures to limit farmland expansion. However, applying our framework identifies several high yield/low externality systems, and more generally suggests that trade-offs among key cost metrics are not as ubiquitous as sometimes perceived.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)477-485
Number of pages9
JournalNature Sustainability
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 14 Sept 2018

Bibliographical note

Author Correction: The environmental costs and benefits of high-yield farming (Nature Sustainability, (2018), 1, 9, (477-485), 10.1038/s41893-018-0138-5)

We are grateful for funding from the Cambridge Conservation Initiative Collaborative Fund and Arcadia, the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, the Kenneth Miller Trust the UK-China Virtual Joint Centre for Agricultural Nitrogen (CINAg, BB/N013468/1, financed by the Newton Fund via BBSRC and NERC), BBSRC (BBS/E/C/000I0330), DEVIL (NE/M021327/1), U-GRASS (NE/M016900/1), Soils-R-GRREAT (NE/P019455/1), N-Circle (BB/N013484/1), BBSRC Soil to Nutrition (S2N) strategic programme (BBS/E/C/000I0330), UNAMPAPIIT ( IV200715), the Belmont Forum/FACEE-JPI (NE/M021327/1 ‘DEVIL’), and the Cambridge Earth System Science NERC DTP (NE/L002507/1); AB is supported by a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit award. We thank Frank Brendrup, Emma Caton, Achim Dobermann, Thiago Jose Florindo, Ellen Fonte, Ottoline Leyser, Andre Mazzetto, Jemima Murthwaite, Farahnaz Pashaei Kamali, Rafael Olea-Perez, Stephen Ramsden, Claudio Ruviaro, Jonathan Storkey, Bernardo Strassburg, Mark Topliff, Joao Nunes Vieira da Silva, David Williams, Xiaoyuan Yan and Yusheng Zhang for advice, data or analysis.


Dive into the research topics of 'The environmental costs and benefits of high-yield farming'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this