Comparative environmental advantage – Introducing division of labor to improve agricultural production in less favored areas

Silvia M.R.R. Marton, Agroscope, Institute for Sustainability Sciences
Michael Kreuzer, ETH Zurich, Institute of Agricultural Sciences
Gérard Gaillard, Agroscope, Institute for Sustainability Sciences

Some regions of the world are, due to climatic or topographic conditions, disadvantaged. Yields are lower and consequently the environmental performance per unit of produce is often inferior compared to more favorable areas. In Switzerland this is the case for the mountain regions, where the vegetation period is shorter and slopes are too steep for crop production. From LCA results it could be concluded that production in the mountains should be abandoned, as the production in the lowlands is more eco-efficient. However, as agricultural land is a limited resource and the traditional landscapes in mountain regions are important habitats for many species, it is worth to seek for better solutions. But how can we identify the most suitable production systems for such regions? 

Following the very successful economic concept of comparative advantage (Ricardo 1817), it might be reasonable to build on division of labor with more favored regions, even if absolute costs of production are higher in the less favored area. We tested if this concept is applicable in an environmental context by using a sample of the dairy farms investigated in the project LCA-FADN (Hersener et al. 2011). Two subsystems “milking of cows” and “rearing of heifers” were studied. Lowland farms from the sample had absolute advantages in milking and rearing for non-renewable energy demand and global warming potential (GWP), for other impact categories the differences were negligible. Exemplarily, results for GWP are presented: The GWP for milking was 1.03 and 0.82 kg CO2e / kg milk on mountain and lowland farms, respectively. The average annual GWP per restocking animal was 2321 and 2093 kg CO2e on mountain and lowland farms, respectively. 

In a scenario without division of labor, both regions are milking cows and rearing their own heifers for restocking. Attributing the impacts for restocking to milk production resulted in 1.28 and 1.00 kg CO2e / kg milk for mountain and lowland farms, respectively. The weighted average GWP for milk production from both regions was 1.09 kg CO2e / kg milk. In a scenario with division of labor, both regions would focus on the subsystem where they have comparative advantage. In our labor division scenario, mountain farms specialize on rearing, while lowland farms specialize on milking. In this scenario, the average GWP of milk could be reduced to 1.02 kg CO2e / kg of milk, thus proving the applicability of the economic concept in an environmental context. 

Division of labor in dairy production is currently only practiced by a few farmers. Most dairy farmers still rear their own heifers. An ongoing study aims at comparing the environmental, economic and social consequences of the two different production systems. 

This work has been funded under the EU seventh Framework Programme by the CANTOGETHER project N°289328: Crops and ANimals TOGETHER. The views expressed in this work are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessary reflect the views of the European Commission. 


Hersener, J.-L., Baumgartner, D.U., Dux, D. (Eds.), 2011. Zentrale Auswertung von Ökobilanzen landwirtschaftlicher Betriebe (ZA-ÖB). Agroscope Reckenholz-Tänikon Research Station ART, Zurich/Ettenhausen, Switzerland. 

Ricardo, D, 1817. On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1 ed.), London, UK: John Murray. Available at: [Accessed 29th January 2014]