Sustainable Intensification: Radical measures and new paradigms for achieving food security in Africa

By Stephanie Brittain

InfographicLaunched today by Agriculture for Impact, a new Sustainable Intensification database aims to explain the ecological, socio-economic and genetic approaches that together contribute to the Sustainable Intensification of agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa in an easily accessible way, illustrated by more than 80 case studies.

Never has there been a greater need for a new paradigm for improving African agriculture. Worldwide, more than 800 million people suffer from chronic hunger. Meanwhile, Africa’s population alone is set to double to 2.4 billion by 2050, putting additional pressure on our planet’s resources to achieve food security for all. A 2011 FAO publication estimated that 1.2 million km2 of land will need to be converted to agriculture by 2030 to meet the increasing demand for food; most of which will need to occur in South America and sub-Saharan Africa. On top of that, climate change is likely to reduce the suitability of many areas of land for farming purposes; this will further exacerbate hunger and increase food shortages for people already suffering the highest burdens.

Push-pull in practice. Credit, ICIPE

Push-pull: Integrated pest management in practice. Credit, ICIPE

In the face of these growing challenges, we need to produce more food with fewer resources, in a sustainable way. Conventional intensification of food production is not appropriate when it is at the expense of environmental and social resources. Emily Alpert, Deputy Director at Agriculture for Impact, states that “in order to achieve food security, we need radical measures and new paradigms. That is what we believe Sustainable Intensification to be.”

Sustainable Intensification integrates innovations and practices from the fields of ecology, genetics and socio-economics to build environmentally sustainable, equitable, productive and resilient ecosystems that improve the well-being of farms, farmers and families.  Sustainable Intensification is a practical pathway towards producing more outputs with a more efficient use of all inputs on a durable basis, while reducing environmental damage and building resilience for farmers and farming systems. It involves intensifying food production, while ensuring that the natural resource base on which agriculture depends is sustained and improved for future generations. Agriculture for Impact recognises that Sustainable Intensification comprises a combination of approaches from three pillars:

  1. Ecological: environmentally sustainable approaches such as intercropping, integrated pest management and precision farming that require less inputs such as water or fertiliser
  2. Genetic: conventional and modern breeding methods for crops and livestock; and
  3. Socio-economic: creating an enabling environment for farmers to access training, finance, inputs and functioning markets

Yields, conflict and contention

Genetic intensification for drought tolerant crops.

While there is wide-ranging support across academic, private and NGO sectors for Sustainable Intensification as a paradigm, there are also a number of controversies associated with Sustainable Intensification. For some, Sustainable Intensification has come to take on a highly charged and politicised meaning, becoming synonymous with an unwelcome advancement of industrial agriculture in Africa. It has also been argued that Sustainable Intensification places higher importance on the ‘intensification’ rather than the ‘sustainable’. It is true that improved production has been the focus of many efforts over the past decades. However, the degradation of our natural resources from unsustainable farming practices combined with additional pressures from climate change means that there must be a renewed focus on the “sustainable” in order to feed our rapidly expanding population and protect our natural resources for future generations.

Sustainable intensification- A new paradigm

School and community nutrition program in Managascar. Credit_Stephanie Malyon  CIAT

Nutrients rich foods for school children help prevent malnutrition in Madagascar. Credit, CIAT

As we endeavour to feed a population expected to reach nine billion by 2050 sustainably, the risk is that we may lose sight of Sustainable Intensification’s scientific value and potential relevance to African agriculture. For this reason, the Sustainable Intensification database offers a balanced, evidence-based and unbiased account of the different approaches covered.  It highlights the role of innovation and the importance of interconnectedness across the three pillars of Sustainable Intensification to improve food security in sub-Saharan Africa.

Home garden, Indonesia.

Home garden, Indonesia.

More than 80 case studies are included, covering all the topics from organic agriculture, home gardens, and water conservation to biotechnology, and participatory agricultural research.  The case studies help to illustrate where Sustainable Intensification has worked, and some of the challenges faced in their implementation, and are a useful resource for policy makers and researchers who are looking to implement these approaches. Technical briefs are being prepared for those looking for an in-depth analysis of the approaches.

Agriculture for Impact hopes that the database will highlight how Sustainable Intensification can be applied to build resilient, productive and equitable communities, whilst protecting the natural capital that we all rely upon.  Sir Gordon Conway, Director of Agriculture for Impact and chair of the Montpellier Panel argues that “Sustainable Intensification must become a new paradigm for African agriculture to capture the dual purpose of intensifying food production while ensuring the natural resource base on which agriculture depends is sustained, and indeed improved, for future generations.”

Click here to explore the database or for more information, read our FAQ.

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