While America has dramatically dematerialized its environmental footprint in recent decades, producing far more food on far less land than 30 years ago, that's not true for the rest of the world. 

Heavy financial incentives in places like Europe - which accounts for 85% of the agricultural subsidies for the entire world - mean there is no reason to embrace modern science and technology. But a new paper notes that allowing land use to be determined purely by those agricultural constituencies results in considerable financial and environmental costs to the public. 

Scholars looked at the value for money of such public support in the UK where half a million land use records were used and found that current land use patterns represents poor value for society relative to this subsidy level. The study suggests that a refocusing of public policies could substantially improve the situation. Alongside tangible financial costs in the form of agricultural subsidies - nearly half the total annual value of EU agriculture is based on public financial support surpassing 70% in Ireland and 30% in Spain, to name a few - the research team calculated the economic value of current and future agricultural land uses due to climate change, including the value of food production and associated environmental impacts including greenhouse gas emissions.

They also estimated the impact of declining wild species and biodiversity caused by intensive farming. Looking to the future, the research weighed up the consequences of alternative land uses and assessed a range of alternative scenarios going forward to the year 2060. 

They conclude that their work demonstrates the importance of bringing ecosystem services into decision-making and to make full use of the potential gains from working with the natural environment and the underpinning biophysical processes. 

They acknowledge that their recommendation is going to run up against practical and political challenges across Europe.  A cow in France earns twice as much money annually as a farmer in sub-Saharan Africa - farmers are not going to let that change - and European culture is resistant to science optimization. Securing the participation of farmers in land-use changes with the claim that it will benefit society due to emissions cuts would suddenly turn a lot of European farmers into global warming deniers. They try to soften it by promoting reform of the European Union's (EU's) Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). They believe that recasting the CAP as a Payment for Ecosystem Services mechanism would reward farmers for delivering a bundle of key of ecosystem services including climate change mitigation by the reduction of emission of greenhouse gases, water regulation, recreation and biodiversity conservation. 

Prof. Unai Pascual
from the Basque Centre for Climate Change
said, "This study provides evidence that conventional support for intensive agriculture in Europe is not working well enough for society. Policy should instead confront the reality of over-relying on agricultural markets as this generates unnecessary costs to society in terms of negative environmental impacts, many of which may be irreversible such as biodiversity loss." "We have put a value to such costs and found that if market dominated agricultural policies in Europe are not changed we will also continue to see a reduction in the flow of benefits that landscapes offer to society (now and for future generations)". "With the evidence at hand it is imperative that there is a U-turn in land use policies that allow to maximize the economic benefits of landscapes by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reducing water pollution, enhanced recreation and urban greenspace, and improvements in biodiversity". "The EU's Common Agricultural Policy must account for the cost of not working with nature. It is time to reward farmers for securing the vital ecosystem services that are highly valued by society. Farmers can be the stewards of our landscapes so that we as a society we can pass them in a healthy state to the next generations."

Citation: Ian J. Bateman, Amii R. Harwood, Georgina M. Mace, Robert T. Watson, David J. Abson, Barnaby Andrews, Amy Binner, Andrew Crowe, Brett H. Day, Steve Dugdale, Carlo Fezzi, Jo Foden, David Hadley, Roy Haines-Young, Mark Hulme, Andreas Kontoleon, Andrew A. Lovett, Paul Munday, Unai Pascual, James Paterson, Grischa Perino, Antara Sen, Gavin Siriwardena, Daan van Soest, and Mette Termansen, 'Bringing Ecosystem Services into Economic Decision-Making: Land Use in the United Kingdom', Science July 5th 2013: 341 (6141), 45-50, DOI:10.1126/science.1234379