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Sustainable intensification: a contradiction in terms?

The sustainable intensification of agricultural systems should be seen as part of a range of initiatives to create greener economies. 

Source: Farming Futures

Agricultural systems are amended ecosystems with a variety of properties. Modern agroecosystems have tended towards high through-flow systems, with energy supplied by fossil fuels directed out of the system (either deliberately for harvests or accidentally through side effects). In the coming decades, resource constraints over water, soil, biodiversity and land will affect agricultural systems. Sustainable agroecosystems are those tending to have a positive impact on natural, social and human capital, while unsustainable systems feed back to deplete these assets, leaving fewer for the future.

A paper in the Annals of Botany considers sustainable intensification (SI) – defined as a process or system where agricultural yields are increased without adverse environmental impact and without the conversion of additional non-agricultural land – and argues that it has a key role in a broader approach to development.

The authors argue that the concept does not articulate or privilege any particular vision or method of agricultural production. Rather, it emphasises ends rather than means, and does not predetermine technologies, species mix or particular design components. The combination of the terms ‘sustainable’ and ‘intensification’ is an attempt to indicate that desirable outcomes around both more food and improved environmental goods and services could be achieved by a variety of means. Nonetheless, it remains controversial to some.

It is difficult to say how much of the world’s agricultural lands are already under forms of more sustainable agricultural production. There has been significant progress on both reducing negative impacts on natural capital and environmental services, and creating systems with the potential to improve all forms of renewable capital assets (natural, social and human).

It is clear, though, that considerably more food will need to be produced as populations continue to grow and food consumption patterns converge on the diets typical of affluent countries and societies, regardless of how much progress is made on reducing waste in food systems. The sustainable intensification of agricultural systems should thus be seen as part of a wide range of initiatives and efforts to create greener economies.

Green growth and the greener economies have become important targets for national and international organizations, including the OECD, UNEP, World Bank, the Rio+20 conference and the Global Green Growth Initiative.

UNEP defines the green economy as ‘resulting in human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities.’

Deep political commitment is rare, even though Stern pointed to the economic value of early action with respect to climate change: the cost of stabilizing all GHGs was a ‘significant but manageable’ 1% of global GDP, but a failure to reduce emissions would result in annual costs of 5–20% of GDP.

Policies in some countries are actively promoting greener agendas, including China, Denmark, Ethiopia, South Africa and South Korea: such a pursuit of greener economies could lead to a new industrial revolution and promote further sustainable intensification of agriculture. China has invested US$100 billion since 2000 in eco-compensation schemes, mostly in forestry and watershed management. A total of 65 countries have implemented feed-in-tariffs to encourage renewable energy generation and, by 2010, renewable energy sources had grown to supply 16·7% of global energy consumption, the fastest growing sector being solar panels. This alone could have a significant impact on remote rural communities, and thus lead to changes in agricultural and food systems.

The revenue of many poorer countries is absorbed by the costs of oil imports: for example, Kenya, Senegal and India spend 45–50 % of export earnings on energy imports. Investing in renewable energy benefits these three countries by saving export earnings, increasing self-reliance and improving domestic natural capital. Kenya has introduced feed-in-tariffs on energy generated from wind, biomass, hydro, biogas, solar and geothermal sources from 2008.

In this way, a greener economy that dramatically changes aspirations and consumption patterns by increasing consumption of the currently poor and reducing that of the affluent, increases well-being and protects natural capital, is not likely to look much like the current economy.

Relevant to all sectors of economies will be important questions about material consumption, and in particular how modes of consumption based on ‘enough not more’ can be created, so resulting in mass behaviours of ‘enoughness’. In this way, the sustainable intensification of agricultural systems could both promote transitions towards greener economies and benefit from progress driven in other sectors.


The full paper is here.

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