Environmental impact of agriculture

The environmental impact of agriculture is the effect that different farming practices have on the ecosystems around them, and how those effects can be traced back to those practices. The environmental impact of agriculture varies widely based on practices employed by farmers and by the scale of practice. Farming communities that try to reduce environmental impacts through modifying their practices will adopt sustainable agriculture practices. The negative impact of agriculture is an old issue that remains a concern even as experts design innovative means to reduce destruction and enhance eco-efficiency.[1] Though some pastoralism is environmentally positive, modern animal agriculture practices tend to be more environmentally destructive than agricultural practices focused on fruits, vegetables and other biomass. The emissions of ammonia from cattle waste continues to raise concerns over environmental pollution.[2]

Water pollution in a rural stream due to runoff from farming activity in New Zealand

When evaluating environmental impact, experts use two types of indicators: "means-based", which is based on the farmer's production methods, and "effect-based", which is the impact that farming methods have on the farming system or on emissions to the environment. An example of a means-based indicator would be the quality of groundwater, that is affected by the amount of nitrogen applied to the soil. An indicator reflecting the loss of nitrate to groundwater would be effect-based.[3] The means-based evaluation looks at farmers' practices of agriculture, and the effect-based evaluation considers the actual effects of the agricultural system. For example, the means-based analysis might look at pesticides and fertilisation methods that farmers are using, and effect-based analysis would consider how much CO2 is being emitted or what the nitrogen content of the soil is.[3]

The environmental impact of agriculture involves impacts on a variety of different factors: the soil, to water, the air, animal and soil variety, people, plants, and the food itself. Agriculture contributes to a number larger of environmental issues that cause environmental degradation including: climate change, deforestation, biodiversity loss,[4] dead zones, genetic engineering, irrigation problems, pollutants, soil degradation, and waste.[5] Because of agriculture's importance to global social and environmental systems, the international community has committed to increasing sustainability of food production as part of Sustainable Development Goal 2: “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture".[6] The United Nations Environment Programme's 2021 "Making Peace with Nature" report highlighted agriculture as both a driver and an industry under threat from environmental degradation.[7]