One of the leading causes of deforestation right now is food production. As population levels grow we need more land to feed more people and this as resulted in the cutting down of forests for arable land.
We’ve already seen that a simple diet change can protect forests and save wildlife, and that one can slow deforestation by being vegetarian. But we know that people are often hesitant to make simple changes that can have large impacts, so what do we do?
Lucky for all of us, we don’t need to modify our behaviour as individuals. We do need to change our local legal policies. Some ecologists have proclaimed that there is no need to continue deforestation and have backed their claim with some strong evidence.
That’s why ecologists like Tilman support techniques for agricultural intensification, even though they often come with problems of their own. For example, in a 2011 paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Tilman et al. took a close look at the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. Producing fertilizer in a factory creates greenhouse gas emissions; so does transporting it, and applying it to fields. Worst of all, some of it turns into nitrous oxide — a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide — and escapes into the atmosphere.
Nevertheless, all of this adds up to much less climate impact than clearing new land. Tilman found that if you try to minimize fertilizer use, you end up farming more land and emitting more greenhouse gases.
Tilman also points out that there are alternatives to synthetic fertilizer: Farmers could grow legumes and cover crops to add some nitrogen. But these techniques can be hard for farmers to implement, as Don Lotter has found, particularly if they are subsistence farmers.