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  • Writer's pictureJourdan Delacruz

Effects of conventional farming methods on climate change.

Scientific Writing (Sci 291), University of Northern Colorado, Summer, 2022

Jourdan Delacruz

The relationship between climate change and agriculture is complex. Currently, impacts of climate change are negatively affecting current farming methods and agricultural prosperity (Beck, 2013). The challenges of inconsistent weather and scarce ecological conditions has caused food availability and sustainability to be at risk. The agriculture industry contributes largely to the emission of greenhouse gasses, deforestation, water systems, soil fertility, and pollution (Beck, 2013). With current globalized systems, growing, packaging, and transporting is driving climate change (Norton, 2010). This problematic phenomenon has influenced many studies to be conducted with the purpose of highlighting the direct link of agriculture and climate change to seek solutions. Study by (USDA, Economic Research Service, 2017) examined the trends between energy commodities and current food systems and found food-related demands of energy to be present through all parts of the supply chain stage. In figure 1, the USDA Economic Research Service created a graph to highlight this trend and illustrate the full impact of food production on energy use between the years 1993 and 2012. Figure 1 shows every process of food systems from farming to transportation and from retail to household and the associated costs in British thermal units (Btu), measurement of fuel by heat energy.

Figure 1. Food related energy consumption in quadrillion Btu (USDA, Economic Research Service 2017, pg. 11) 

More specifically, the current food system relies heavily on conventional farming methods, which utilize a uniform approach to growing or managing livestock and disregard the natural heterogeneity of ecological systems, including land and water (Corwin and Scudiero, 2019). This type of farming focuses on the use of monocropping, which is a method of farming that only utilizes one type of crop or one type of livestock per field. In effect, monocropping has led to the loss of microbe biodiversity that negatively impacts soil health (Na et al., 2021). Additionally, conventional farming methods incorporate synthetic fertilizers that are strongly responsible for the majority of nitrous oxide (N2O) and methane (CH4) released into the atmosphere (Smith, Kirk, Jones, and Williams, 2019). Carbon dioxide (CO2) from fossil fuels used in production processes, including packaging and transporting, is also released into the atmosphere and contributes to total greenhouse gas emissions (Smith, Kirk, Jones, and Williams, 2019). Furthermore, conventional farming affects water systems. Flooding, drought, ground water, run-off, and water pollution have caused major shifts in water systems that have consequently affected aqueous environments. Specifically, nonpoint source pollution (NPS) is the leading contributor to the contamination and impairments of rivers, lakes, wetlands, and groundwater (Protecting water quality). NPS is due to poorly managed livestock operations, soil erosion, and conventional farming methods, including using fertilizers, pesticides, and water irrigation (Protecting water quality). Study by (Smith, Kirk, Jones, and Williams, 2019) was conducted to seek possible solutions have found organic farming, the use of crop diversification, and better water practices that have helped minimize the effects of climate change. Figure 2 and 3 show the difference in GHG emissions based on conventional and organic farming methods. Figure 2, specifically, shows the difference of N2O, CH4, and CO2 levels released from various vegetables grown in both conventional and organic practices. Overall, the trend shows a reduction in GHG emissions via organic farming methods. Similarly, figure 3 shows an overall reduction in GHG emissions utilizing organic methods in livestock production versus conventional methods. 

Figure 2. GHG emissions from vegetables grown both conventionally and organically (Smith, Kirk, Jones, and Williams 2019, pg. 4)

 Figure 3. GHG emissions from livestock both conventionally and organically (Smith, Kirk, Jones, and Williams 2019, pg. 4)

A distinct and collective connection between conventional farming methods and adverse effects of climate change can be proven by compiling a collection of research studies that address the issues relating to the effects of agriculture and climate change. Additionally, per many scientific studies such as (Smith, Kirk, Jones, and Williams, 2019) have foundalternative agricultural methods that can be used to reduce the consequences of food systems on the environment. 


A study conducted by (Na et al., 2021) examined the loss of microbial diversity from the monocropping of Lycium barbarum (goji berry) in northwest China. The experiment took place in two semi-arid locations and utilized three types of field soils. Soil samples were collected and tested for pH, total organic carbon, electrical conductivity, photometry, and various enzymatic activities. The results showed significant microbial diversity loss under monocropping (Na et al., 2021). Additionally, there were indications of total reduction in productivity of L. barbarum and the development of pathogens (Na et al., 2021). Specifically, fungi Fusarium spp. spread throughout the soil and increased in population (Na et al., 2021). Results from this study showed the presence of secondary soil salinization (the collection of water-soluble salts within soil) as an effect of monocropping (Na et al., 2021). Salinization can occur naturally; however, human activity can increase the likelihood of salinization to occur and disrupt crop growth (Na et al., 2021).

Effects from conventional farming goes much further than the soil. A study by (Wang et al., 2017) was conducted to report the agricultural inputs that directly contribute to GHG emissions. Chinese national statistical data was gathered from years 1993 through 2007 to accurately compare GHG quantities. The agricultural inputs used include different fertilizer types that varied by nitrogen, phosphorus pentoxide, and potassium oxide content. The results indicate an increase of total GHG emissions and the greatest sources were from conventional fertilizers (Wang et al., 2017). Additionally, the goal of this study was to find the fertilizer type that had the lowest emissions and costs in actual scenarios. The findings from this study can be found in table 1 which shows the percent differences of fertilizer content, emission factor, and sale prices amongst fertilizer types used. The results show fertilizers containing mostly ammonium bicarbonate, calcium superphosphate, and potassium chloride to yield the best result (Wang et al., 2017). It is predicted that, with the use of these types of fertilizer, there would be a 49.15% reduction of emissions related to fertilizer use (Wang et al., 2017).

Table 1. Input factors of different fertilizer types (Wang et al., 2017, pg. 1270).

In addition to soil and air, (Beretta, G.P., 2017) analyzed both point and non-point pollution and the effects on groundwater in Italy. In this study, point pollution was indicated by specific contamination sites from three types of sources: sites of national interest, regional sites, and municipal sites. These contamination sites are where the treatment and disposal of waste from both industrial and commercial use are found directly. Non-point pollution (NPS) is harder to detect, however. This study found a connection between nitrates from agricultural load and groundwater. Due to the nature of NPS, the best way to limit access of nitrates in groundwater is to evaluate both natural (i.e. velocity of running water) and anthropogenic (i.e. deforestation) factors (Beretta, G.P., 2017). These factors combined with vulnerable geographic areas result in the impairment of ground water systems (Beretta, G.P., 2017). NPS has been linked to sedimentation, animal feeding operations, irrigation, pesticides, and livestock grazing. The release of pollutants from nearly all components of conventional farming have increased the risk of contamination to drinking water, the deuteration of lakes, rivers, wetlands, and oceans, and the deleterious threat to aqueous habitat (Protecting water quality). New technological advances have been examined in order to adapt to changing water systems. Study by (Arouna and Akpa, 2019) examined the Smart Valley Approach first introduced in Ghana and Nigeria used to develop rice-based systems from inland valleys. The idea of the Smart Valley Approach is to create opportunities for agriculture by adaptability. The project SMART-IV develops Smart Valley Approach training sites and education programs to influence rice farmers in Benin and Togo to utilize this method for future growing seasons (Arouna and Akpa, 2019). Developing adaptive systems used for agricultural purposes help farmers find sustainable methods to farming. However, the upfront costs of implementing better water practices may be a possible limitation for most small farmers.

            With the rise of climate change, possible solutions to combat climate change have been examined. According to (Mustafa, Mayes, and Massawe, 2019), reliance on a single crop system is extremely risky due to environmental changes. Food production has become increasingly unpredictable due to changes in weather patterns. Food diversity is shrinking due to genetic uniformity and lack of biodiversity within crop fields. Additionally, food has become more vulnerable to disease and pests. To overcome these conditions, farmers are finding that the use of crop diversification may be beneficial to crop yield. Diversification improves crop resilience from disease and extreme weather (Mustafa, Mayes, and Massawe, 2019). This process is also more sustainable because it maximizes the use of natural processes that allows farmers to capitalize on the ecosystem as a whole (Mustafa, Mayes, and Massawe, 2019). Figure 4 from (Mustafa, Mayes, and Massawe, 2019) illustrates off-farm and on-farm diversification systems along with the potential benefits of both. Corn and soybean are the most popular monoculture crops grown in the U.S. The potential of financial loss by eliminating land used specifically for these crops may be a limitation to advancing the application of diversification in the U.S.

Figure 4. Crop diversification systems and their benefits (Mustafa, Mayes, and Massawe, 2019, pg. 129).

Another suspected solution to climate change is organic farming. Organic farming is linked to lower GHG emissions, soil erosion, energy use, and pollution. Many small farms have already adopted organic practices for the purpose of soil conservation and climate protection. Additionally, there is a shift occurring in society where more people are wanting organic foods for reasons of quality, taste, and ethical concerns. However, there are limitations to organic farming which may explain why the U.S. food industry has not fully adopted this system. For one: organic farming is expensive for both the farmers and consumers. Organic products also face numerous marketing claims and terms that are not regulated nor standardized across the board (Forman, Silverstein, and Committee on Nutrition; and Council on Environmental Health, 2014). Additionally, there is not enough substantial evidence to support nutritional benefits of consuming organic process versus conventional (Forman, Silverstein, and Committee on Nutrition; and Council on Environmental Health, 2014). With these limitations, organic farming has gained a sense of distrust amongst some consumers. Further research on low-cost application of organic farming methods must be explored in order to gain wider public support.


Conventional farming methods have been linked to the rapid progression of climate change (Beck, 2013). Without significant changes in anthropogenic practices, conventional farming methods will not only be unsustainable, but the ecological availability to adapt will be nonviable. Scientists, researchers, environmentalist, and farmers are rigorously finding ways to balance the complex relationship between agriculture and climate change. As a society, it is important to consider the costs of convenience when it comes to food. The environmental toll it takes to grow, transport, and then sell foods at local stores may no longer be reliable. (Horrigan, Lawrence, and Walker, 2002) claims 3 kcal of fossil fuel is used for every 1 kcal of food energy available for consumers. To truly have a sustainable agriculture system, the reliance on energy, chemical inputs, and economic efficiencies for profit margin can no longer be the backbone of U.S. agriculture (Horrigan, Lawrence, and Walker, 2002). The resolution starts with a more intimate relationship between consumer and producer (Horrigan, Lawrence, and Walker, 2002). This includes less time and distance traveled between farm and plate, as well as a more holistic approach to food consumption. Additional research may be needed in order to gain government support to help off-set the costs of transitioning into sustainable agriculture. Sustainable farming is just one sector of the overall global picture. The acknowledgment that economic growth has its limits and natural resources are finite is the first step in an ever-evolving pursuit of sustainability.


Special thank you to all those who contributed their efforts to this paper; especially, to the UNCO library and staff, my professor, and generous peer reviewer.

Reference Cited

Arouna, A., and Akpa, A.K.A., 2019, Water management technology for adaptation to climate change in rice production: Evidence of smart-valley approach in west Africa, in Sustainable Solutions for Food Security, Cham, Springer International Publishing, p. 211–227.

Beck, J., 2013, Predicting climate change effects on agriculture from ecological niche modeling: who profits, who loses? Climatic change, v. 116, p. 177–189, doi:10.1007/s10584-012-0481-x.

Beretta, G.P., 2017, Point and nonpoint pollution and restoring groundwater quality in Italy: 30 years of experience: Rendiconti lincei. Scienze fisiche e naturali, v. 28, p. 255–264, doi:10.1007/s12210-016-0594-7.

Canning, P., Rehkamp, S., Waters, A., and Etemadnia, H., 2017, The role of fossil fuels in the U.s. food system and the American diet:, (accessed July 2022).

Corwin, D.L., and Scudiero, E., 2019, Review of soil salinity assessment for agriculture across multiple scales using proximal and/or remote sensors, in Advances in Agronomy, Elsevier, p. 1–130.

Forman, J., Silverstein, J., and Committee on Nutrition; and Council on Environmental Health, 2014, Organic foods: Health and environmental advantages and disadvantages, in Pediatric Clinical Practice Guidelines & Policies, American Academy of Pediatrics, p. 1054–1054.

Horrigan, L., Lawrence, R.S., and Walker, P., 2002, How sustainable agriculture can address the environmental and human health harms of industrial agriculture: Environmental health perspectives, v. 110, p. 445–456, doi:10.1289/ehp.02110445.

Mustafa, M.A., Mayes, S., and Massawe, F., 2019, Crop diversification through a wider use of underutilised crops: A strategy to ensure food and nutrition security in the face of climate change, in Sustainable Solutions for Food Security, Cham, Springer International Publishing, p. 125–149.

Na, X., Ma, S., Ma, C., Liu, Z., Xu, P., Zhu, H., Liang, W., and Kardol, P., 2021, Lycium barbarum L. (goji berry) monocropping causes microbial diversity loss and induces Fusarium spp. enrichment at distinct soil layers: Applied soil ecology: a section of Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, v. 168, p. 104107, doi:10.1016/j.apsoil.2021.104107.

Norton, D., 2010, Energy and Food Prodecution:, (accessed August 2022).

Smith, L.G., Kirk, G.J.D., Jones, P.J., and Williams, A.G., 2019, The greenhouse gas impacts of converting food production in England and Wales to organic methods: Nature communications, v. 10, p. 4641, doi:10.1038/s41467-019-12622-7.

Wang, Z.-B., Chen, J., Mao, S.-C., Han, Y.-C., Chen, F., Zhang, L.-F., Li, Y.-B., and Li, C.-D., 2017, Comparison of greenhouse gas emissions of chemical fertilizer types in China’s crop production: Journal of cleaner production, v. 141, p. 1267–1274, doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2016.09.120.

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