A new study published in Environmental Research Letters examines the relationship between attempts to improve global food security and to mitigate climate change. The findings revealed that these two efforts can potentially form a virtuous circle, where improvements in agricultural yields may cut down greenhouse gas emissions, on top of providing more food.

The researchers noted that land use change and agriculture account for about one-third of greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans in the past decade, through crop cultivation, animal raising and deforestation. Unfortunately, efforts to produce more food on less land, and thus reduce emissions, often rely on fertilizer, which leads to the emission of nitrogen-containing gases that also contribute to global warming.

Boosting crop yields and livestock feed efficiency in a sustainable way, the researchers found, could cut emissions by 12% per calorie produced. In order to produce such results, the emphasis must be moved away from farming practices and technologies that are fertilizer-intensive, and toward practices like improved crop rotations, integrated crop-livestock practices and precision agriculture, also known as satellite farming.

These principles are especially relevant in developing countries, where the efficiency of agriculture is often lagging behind more developed systems, according to the study. Investing in more efficient agriculture in these places could lead to substantial benefits to food security as well as reduced emissions. However, the study pointed to the negative feedback loop comes into play once food availability is increased. More food will lead to lower prices, which will lead to increased demand. The activity needed to meet this demand will cut back into the emissions reductions achieved by sustainable agriculture. This makes choosing the right farming methods to achieve a net positive result highly important.

The research was conducted using scenario models that give insight into the way future policy, actions and costs influence outcomes. The study also found that increasing livestock yields has the potential to reduce emissions more than improving crop yields. But because meat and dairy are a small portion of many diets, especially in developing countries, increasing crop yields has more impact on food security than increasing livestock yields. “Combining productivity increases in the two sectors appears to be the most efficient way to exploit mitigation and food security co-benefits,” the researchers wrote.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, September 2013