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A fundamental misunderstanding about modern agriculture

Summary:
The usual suspects have lined up to insist that European farming must become less efficient in the raising of food. At the same time, more efficient at the raising of wildlife. The two, obviously enough, being ends of the possible spectrum. We can use “wildlife friendly” farming methods on a particular piece of land and that will mean some amount of the production of that land feeding said wildlife. Or, clearly, “wildlife unfriendly” on that same piece of land and as we’re not feeding the birdies the production is feeding us.The EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP) should be overhauled urgently to stop the intensification of farming practices that is leading to a steep decline in wildlife, scientists from across the bloc have urged. Five organisations representing more than 2,500 experts

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The usual suspects have lined up to insist that European farming must become less efficient in the raising of food. At the same time, more efficient at the raising of wildlife. The two, obviously enough, being ends of the possible spectrum. We can use “wildlife friendly” farming methods on a particular piece of land and that will mean some amount of the production of that land feeding said wildlife. Or, clearly, “wildlife unfriendly” on that same piece of land and as we’re not feeding the birdies the production is feeding us.

The EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP) should be overhauled urgently to stop the intensification of farming practices that is leading to a steep decline in wildlife, scientists from across the bloc have urged.

Five organisations representing more than 2,500 experts have written to Ursula von der Leyen, the incoming president of the European commission, and the European parliament, to demand major changes to the way the CAP operates.

In isolation there’s nothing wrong with either the facts or the logic here:

Proposed changes that would place more emphasis on such measures are still inadequate, the experts found. Instead, they want to see fundamental reforms that support smaller farms that use sustainable methods and maintain high biodiversity.

Who doesn’t like to see the flutterbys mobbing the meadow?

But the fundamental misunderstanding is still there. It is to think of the wildlife on the land we farm, rather than to consider the totality of the land and the wild. If each piece of land we use is used more efficiently for food production then we need to use less land for that food production. If we, for example, returned to properly medieval farming methods* then we’d all be dead even as we ploughed the entirety of Eurasia flat.

It is that very intensity of our use of farmland, that absence of wildlife feeding off it so that we may, which creates the surplus land upon which the wild can and does thrive. A decrease in efficiency would lead to the cropping of all the marginal land in a manner which would make the WWII ploughing of the uplands look mild.

We are continually urged to think holistically these days. Something we should indeed do. Modern industrial farming, precisely because of its intensity and absence of anything other than human food production, is what creates the space for there to be that wider environment.

*One estimate is that around 1300 AD the seed corn to harvested wheat ratio was some 1 to 4. Today it is more like 1 to 60, perhaps 1 to 100. Think how much more land we’d need for bread production if we reverted to the old methods.

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Tim Worstall
Tim Worstall is a British-born writer and Senior Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute. Worstall is a regular contributor to Forbes and the Register. He has also written for the Guardian, the New York Times, PandoDaily, the Daily Telegraph blogs, the Times, and The Wall Street Journal. In 2010 his blog was listed as one of the top 100 UK political blogs by Total Politics.

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