Agriculture Impact

Agriculture imposes external costs upon society through pesticides, nutrient runoff, excessive water usage, and assorted other problems. A 2000 assessment of agriculture in the UK determined total external costs for 1996 of £2,343 million, or £208 per hectare. A 2005 analysis of these costs in the USA concluded that cropland imposes approximately $5 to 16 billion ($30 to $96 per hectare), while livestock production imposes $714 million. Both studies concluded that more should be done to internalize external costs, and neither included subsidies in their analysis, but noted that subsidies also influence the cost of agriculture to society. Both focused on purely fiscal impacts. The 2000 review included reported pesticide poisonings but did not include speculative chronic effects of pesticides, and the 2004 review relied on a 1992 estimate of the total impact of pesticides.

In 2010, the International Resource Panel of the United Nations Environment Programme published a report assessing the environmental impacts of consumption and production. The study found that agriculture and food consumption are two of the most important drivers of environmental pressures, particularly habitat change, climate change, water use and toxic emissions.

Agriculture accounts for 70 per cent of withdrawals of freshwater resources. However, increasing pressure being placed on water resources by industry, cities and the involving biofuels industry means that water scarcity is increasing and agriculture is facing the challenge of producing more food for the world’s growing population with fewer water resources. Scientists are also realising that water resources need to be allocated to maintain natural environmental services, such as protecting towns from flooding, cleaning ecosystems and supporting fish stocks. In the book Out of Water: From abundance to scarcity and how to solve the world’s water problems, authors Colin Chartres and Samyukta Varma of the International Water Management Institute lay down a six-point plan of action for addressing the global challenge of producing sufficient food for the world with dwindling water resources. One of the actions they say is required is to ensure all water systems, such as lakes and rivers, have water allocated to environmental flow.

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