How we manage farming and food systems to meet rising demand is pivotal to the future of biodiversity. Extensive field data suggest that impacts on wild populations would be greatly reduced through boosting yields on existing farmland so as to spare remaining natural habitats. High-yield farming raises other concerns because expressed per unit area it can generate high levels of externalities such as greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient losses. However, such metrics underestimate the overall impacts of lower-yield systems. Here we develop a framework that instead compares externality and land costs per unit production. We apply this framework to diverse data sets that describe the externalities of four major farm sectors and reveal that, rather than involving trade-offs, the externality and land costs of alternative production systems can covary positively: per unit production, land-efficient systems often produce lower externalities. For greenhouse gas emissions, these associations become more strongly positive once forgone sequestration is included. Our conclusions are limited: remarkably few studies report externalities alongside yields; many important externalities and farming systems are inadequately measured; and realizing the environmental benefits of high-yield systems typically requires additional measures to limit farmland expansion. Nevertheless, our results suggest that trade-offs among key cost metrics are not as ubiquitous as sometimes perceived.

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We are grateful for funding from the Cambridge Conservation Initiative Collaborative Fund and Arcadia, the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, the Kenneth Miller Trust, the UK-China Virtual Joint Centre for Agricultural Nitrogen (CINAg, BB/N013468/1, financed by the Newton Fund via BBSRC and NERC), BBSRC (BBS/E/C/000I0330), DEVIL (NE/M021327/1), U-GRASS (NE/M016900/1), Soils-R-GRREAT (NE/P019455/1), N-Circle (BB/N013484/1), BBSRC Soil to Nutrition (S2N) strategic programme (BBS/E/C/000I0330), UNAM-PAPIIT (IV200715), the Belmont Forum/FACEE-JPI (NE/M021327/1 ‘DEVIL’) and the Cambridge Earth System Science NERC DTP (NE/L002507/1); A.B. is supported by a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit award. We thank F. Brendrup, E. Caton, A. Dobermann, T. J. Florindo, E. Fonte, O. Leyser, A. Mazzetto, J. Murthwaite, F. P. Kamali, R. Olea-Perez, S. Ramsden, C. Ruviaro, J. Storkey, B. Strassburg, M. Topliff, J. N. V. da Silva, D. Williams, X. Yan and Y. Zhang for advice, data or analysis, and K. Willott for much practical support.

Author information


  1. Conservation Science Group, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK

    • Andrew Balmford
    • , Tatsuya Amano
    • , Harriet Bartlett
    • , Rhys Green
    • , Helen Waters
    • , Tom Finch
    • , Emma Garnett
    • , Fangyuan Hua
    • , Ben Phalan
    • , Benno I. Simmons
    • , Erasmus zu Ermgassen
    •  & Rowan Eisner
  2. Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK

    • Tatsuya Amano
  3. Environment Centre Wales, Bangor, UK

    • Dave Chadwick
  4. Rothamsted Research, Okehampton, UK

    • Adrian Collins
    • , Tom Misselbrook
    •  & Taro Takahashi
  5. Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK

    • David Edwards
  6. RSPB Centre for Conservation Science, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Sandy, UK

    • Rob Field
    •  & Tom Finch
  7. School of Biosciences, University of Nottingham, Loughborough, UK

    • Philip Garnsworthy
  8. Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, UK

    • Pete Smith
  9. Rothamsted Research, Harpenden, UK

    • Andrew Whitmore
  10. Department of Veterinary Medicine, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK

    • Donald M. Broom
  11. CIPAV, Centre for Research on Sustainable Agricultural Production Systems, Cali, Colombia

    • Julian Chara
  12. School of Geosciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK

    • Alfred Gathorne-Hardy
  13. Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK

    • Alfred Gathorne-Hardy
  14. Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development, Somerville College, Oxford, UK

    • Alfred Gathorne-Hardy
  15. Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Zootechny, National Autonomous University of Mexico, Mexico City, Mexico

    • Juan Hernandez-Medrano
  16. Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, St Lucia, Queensland, Australia

    • Mario Herrero
  17. Department of Geography and Environment, Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio), Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

    • Agnieszka Latawiec
  18. Institute of Agricultural Engineering and Informatics, Faculty of Production and Power Engineering, University of Agriculture in Kraków, Kraków, Poland

    • Agnieszka Latawiec
  19. Universidade Federal da Bahia, Rua Barão de Jeremoabo, Salvador, Brazil

    • Ben Phalan
  20. British Veterinary School, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK

    • Taro Takahashi
  21. UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre, Cambridge, UK

    • James Vause


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A.B., T.A., H.B., D.C., D.E., R.F., P.G., R.G., P.S., H.W., A.W. and R.E. designed the study and performed the research; D.M.B., A.C., J.C., T.F., E.G., A.G.-H., J.H.-M., M.H., F.H., A.L., T.M., B.P., B.I.S., T.T., J.V. and E.z.E. contributed and analysed data and results; and all authors contributed substantially to the analysis and interpretation of results and writing of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Andrew Balmford.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Figures 1–3, Supplementary Tables 1–5

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