Debating sustainable intensification

I follow the work of the Food and Climate Research Network quite closely. They have a great newsletter that includes updates and also commentary. A few days ago, we received notice of a New Paper: Putting back meaning into sustainable intensification. Today, in the weekly alert, we received this reply from Peter Stevenson, Compassion in World Farming.

It articulates very clearly some of the concerns that I, and many others, continue to have around the idea of intensification. As I begin to work with colleagues on the concept of ecological intensification, I am struggling to articulate these concerns and make sure that they are addressed from the outset. Perhaps the weight of the word “intensification” is too heavy but I also think that it addresses an aspect of farming that we cannot ignore and which  needs to be done in an ecologically sustainable way.

Here are Peter Stevenson’s reflections:

I welcome this paper’s challenge to the concept of ‘sustainable intensification’.  Tara suggests that the problem lies not so much with the principles underpinning SI, but with  the name itself – the negative baggage that the word ‘intensification’ carries around may be simply too heavy.  I think the problem lies both with the principles and the word.

Tara has sought in a number of papers to broaden the SI concept.  However, the essence of the concept does put a one-sided focus on production and quantity leaving too little space for consideration of consumption and nutritional quality.  In addition, the SI concept reinforces the erroneous belief that in order to feed the anticipated world population of 9.6 billion we need a huge increase in food production.  We already produce enough food to feed 11 billion or more people but around half of it is lost or wasted post-harvest or at retail and consumer level or by being fed to animals.

While academics seek to give a nuanced scope to SI, many policy makers (ab)use SI to justify a primarily productionist agenda with little consideration being given to whether, in a particular context, yield increases are genuinely sustainable.  Intensification is rarely sustainable and the pairing of these words can mislead policy makers into thinking this chimera is readily achievable.  In practice, enhanced yields are often pursued through monocultures and increased use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.  This will increasingly undermine the critical natural resources on which agriculture depends thereby diminishing the ability of future generations to feed themselves.

Moreover, the term SI has become seen by policy makers as a goal in itself rather than as simply a policy instrument for achieving the real objective of food security.  Increased food production cannot, of itself, provide food security.  To achieve genuine food security we need to develop a food and farming model that eschews the over-reliance on productionism that is inherent in the SI model and instead:

·         uses resources more efficiently

·         focuses not on yield (in tonnes per hectare) but on the number of people actually fed per hectare of cropland

·         enhances soil quality, uses water sparingly without polluting it, avoids expansion of cropland into forests and grasslands, and restores biodiversity and ecosystems

·         provides healthy, nutritious food and reduces the contribution of poor diets to non-communicable diseases

·         improves the productivity of small-scale farmers in the developing world in ways which match well with their circumstances; this should not entail the introduction of industrial farming as this excludes participation of those farmers living in deepest poverty.

We do need to replace SI with a new term.  How about ‘feeding people sustainably’?  This encapsulates the core objective of achieving food security and allows balanced consideration of both production and consumption elements.

 

3 thoughts on “Debating sustainable intensification

  1. This seems great work. Do you by any chance have the paper, and if so, could you send it to me? 🙂 For some reason I can’t access it..

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