Sustainable intensification: what does it really mean?

Sustainable intensification, a term brought to prominence in the Royal Society’s 2009 report, Reaping the Benefits, has become a widely debated and often controversial issue. Indeed sustainable intensification was the topic of two recent conferences, the Royal Society’s Achieving food and environmental security, and Chatham House’s Food Security 2012 Conference, Sustainable intensification: miracle or mirage?

Gordon Conway, speaking at Chatham House, put forward the concept of sustainable intensification as producing more from less or in other words, greater productivity with a smaller footprint. At the Royal Society, Professor Charles Godfray of the University of Oxford discussed four key points relating to sustainable intensification:

1)    Action is needed on all fronts both the production and consumption sides;

2)    There are very limited amounts of new land and sustainable intensification is a logical deduction from this;

3)    It is not sustainable intensification i.e. it is not business as usual with marginal improvements in environmental impact.

4)    A goal is not a trajectory: sustainable intensification must be evidenced-based and context specific.

But, given the level of debate around the term, sustainable intensification clearly needs better public delineation at both theoretical and practical levels. Several key questions were asked at these conferences and we’d love to hear your thoughts on them.

Do we need to increase food production?

Around a third of all food produced is wasted, 1.4 billion adults are obese and there is evidence we will be able to feed the population into the future, climate change permitting, so why do we need to increase the production of food rather than improve its distribution? Around 1 billion people today are chronically hungry and come 2050 we will need to feed a population of 9 billion who eat the diet of a population of 12 billion. In one conference speaker’s opinion the reason why we need to produce more food is that it is more cost-efficient to increase production rather than reduce waste, on which there is a noticeable lack of data. Given that 80% of the world’s chronically hungry are smallholder farmers, increasing food production at the source may go some way in eliminating global food insecurity. This leads to the next question:

Who needs to intensify food production?

For this there at least seems to be some agreement. The people who require better yields are smallholder farmers who often face numerous barriers to improving food production such as a lack of access to input and output markets, credit, new technology and secure land rights. Access to technology was a dominant theme at the Chatham House conference and here there seems to be some disagreement around the importance of science and technology for achieving sustainable intensification.

What is the role of science and innovation?

Historically improvements in fundamental science have led to improvements in crop and livestock production, take the use of genomics in plant breeding for example. But there are some who believe that technology is just a buzzword for private sector profit seeking. Investment in publicly-funded research will be crucial to ensure new technologies have a social component.

The real or perceived polarity between agro-ecological farming practices and conventional intensive farming was repeatedly mentioned despite many saying these farming systems can go hand in hand. The former was seen as pro-poor, relying on technologies often immediately available. But these technologies are often skill and labour intensive and require systems of sharing knowledge that may not be in place. The latter involves technologies that often negatively impact the environment or animal welfare and may involve large investments. Is the aim of sustainable intensification to combine the benefits of these systems while minimising their detrimental environmental and social impacts? And if so how can this be practically approached?

Another question was whether we need to focus on developing new technologies or if existing technologies were adequate and here there was some agreement – we have a whole range of existing technologies that can both improve production and reduce external inputs such as microdosing, so we should focus on implementing these while accepting that the challenges we face such as climate change require us to continue to innovate and find new solutions to new problems.

What level of importance is given to each of the two components?

This seems to be the main source of disagreement and goes back to Prof. Godfray’s earlier point that sustainable intensification is not business as usual with marginal improvements in environmental impact. It is also not a repackaging of agribusiness under a green agenda. Instead it must be a partnership between farmers, NGOs, universities, and public and private institutions that sets the agenda. Without agreement on the definition of the concept of sustainable intensification can this agenda be set at all? And as a question often asked in agricultural development, how can we find the middle ground and resolve these debates to ensure they do not hinder progress towards greater global food security, climate change mitigation and protection of natural resources?

What does sustainable intensification mean? It means what we want it to mean. Now we just need to agree on what we want.



  1. […] issue of how we will feed a growing global population with limited land resources has been seen in recent conferences and debates. And it is now the topic of a new book entitled, The politics of land and food scarcity, published […]

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