Agriculture amongst biggest environmental threats

Posted on 09 April 2004

According to a new WWF book, agriculture – the largest industry in the world – is one of the biggest threats to the environment. Inefficient food production and harmful agriculture subsidies are causing deforestation, water shortages and pollution.
Gland, Switzerland – According to a new WWF book, agriculture — the largest industry in the world — is one of the biggest threats to the environment. Inefficient food production and harmful agriculture subsidies are causing deforestation, water shortages, and pollution. 
The WWF book, World Agriculture and the Environment, argues that while agriculture employs an estimated 1.3 billion people and produces approximately US$1.3 trillion worth of goods annually, it also contributes to serious environmental, social, and economic problems, particularly in developing countries. 
The book points out that agriculture uses more than 50 per cent of the habitable area of the planet, including land not suitable for it. This is destroying 130,000km2 (an area more than four times the size of Switzerland) of forests annually, as well as critical habitats such as savannahs, montane areas and wetlands.

Agriculture is also destroying the habitats of many species. The book highlights palm oil as the commodity posing the biggest threat to endangered large mammals. Asian elephant, Sumatran rhinoceros, orangutan, and tiger populations are all declining because palm oil plantations are encroaching on their habitats. 
According to the book, agriculture wastes 60 per cent, or 1,500 trillion litres, of the 2,500 trillion litres of water that it uses each year. Water resources are already being used close to or beyond their limit, particularly in the Americas, North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, China, and India. The impacts of global warming are likely to further disrupt water supplies. 
"Agriculture has had a larger environmental impact than any other human activity and today it threatens the very systems we need to meet our food and textile needs," said Dr. Jason Clay, author of the book and Vice President of the Center for Conservation Innovation at WWF-US. "New kinds of agriculture can produce the food needed to feed an increasing population and still accommodate all the other life forms on the planet."
The book warns that government subsidies currently encourage intensive monoculture farming practices, which use chemicals and heavy machinery harmful to the environment. In England, for example, this has led to a 77 per cent decrease in bird populations over the past 30 years.
The book recommends that governments – especially those of big consuming countries like China, Japan, the United States, and the EU – redirect funding from subsidies and market barriers that promote unfair competition towards the adoption of better management practices. These include government payments for environmental services that farmers provide, such as watershed protection, erosion prevention, clean water, and carbon sequestration. 
The book further recommends that governments must work with farmers and the food industry to develop better management practices in order to increase efficiency and reduce damage to the environment. WWF and the World Bank are exploring financial incentives that encourage farmers and investors to adopt better management practices, for example ecolabels promoting environmentally-friendly products and offering a reduction in financial risks. 
For further information:
Dr Jason Clay
Vice President of the Center for Conservation Innovation, WWF-US
Tel: +1 202 7789691
Mitzi Borromeo
Press Officer, WWF International
Tel: +41 79 4773553
To obtain copies
of World Agriculture and the Environment, published by Island Press, 14 April 2004, visit
What is left of an elephant "corridor" in a palm oil plantation area, Tesso Nilo, Sumatra, Indonesia.
© WWF / Alain Compost