Tara Garnett tackles the thorny and complex issue of growing more with less.

Tara Garnett

‘Sustainable intensification’ is one of those phrases regularly bandied about in discussions about agriculture. What does it actually mean?

The shorthand definition: ‘producing more food with less negative impact’ – seems hard to dislike. But considering what it might mean in practice, all sorts of questions arise.

Does sustainable intensification imply a particular system or philosophy of agriculture? What about the ‘more food’ issue – how much more, what kind of food, produced where and for whom? How much weight does one attach to the ‘sustainable’ as opposed to the ‘intensification’ part? And what happens when ethical concerns such as animal welfare are added to the mix? 

It’s surprising that people have interpreted ‘sustainable intensification’ in different ways (as discussion on the ‘Sense and sustainability’ post here shows). Some have endorsed it because they see it as equivalent with a system of production that already exists; others reject it for exactly same reasons. And many still argue that sustainable intensification is quite simply oxymoronic – that by definition (or otherwise), it cannot be done.  

Finally, there are some of us who see it as an aspiration of what needs to be achieved – a goal rather than a particular state of play. 

Workshop report

To explore sustainable intensification as a concept the Food Climate Research Network and the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food organised a two-day workshop back in January. The outcome of these discussions was the report Sustainable intensification in agriculture. Navigating a course through competing food system priorities.

The report is by no means the ‘last word’ on sustainable intensification. What it does do, however, is map out some of the conceptual territory and make a few observations that, we hope, will help advance thinking in this area. 

First, the report argues that sustainable intensification does not represent a strategy for the food system as a whole but for just one component of it – agricultural production. This is where sustainable intensification has a part to play in ensuring that agriculture provides the food we need in a manner that is environmentally and societally acceptable. In short, sustainable intensification is not a substitute for, but a complement to action on demand, waste and governance issues.

Second, the ‘sustainable’ and the ‘intensification’ sides of the phrase need to carry equal weight. Intensification, by reducing pressure on non-food producing land and other resources, underpins sustainability. Equally, food production in the context of a growing population must ultimately be sustainable if it is to continue to feed people in the future. 

Third, sustainable intensification should be decoupled from specific production targets, such as the ‘need’ to produce 60% or 100% more food, or any other amount. Rather, the goal is to optimise productivity against a range of outcomes. Societies need to decide what they want to intensify production of – more food perhaps, but what kind of food?  What about other outcomes from the food system such as livelihoods? We need to decide what our goals are for agricultural production and to develop ways of measuring progress.

Achieving sustainability in the food system as a whole is a far broader challenge and requires actions on multiple fronts. On the demand side we need to reduce population growth rates and curb high levels of per capita consumption, particularly for resource intensive foods such as meat. Importantly, more needs to be done to improve governance (including addressing access and equity issues) and to reduce food losses and waste throughout the food chain. And then there is the supply side – production. 

Less is more

Sustainability is a difficult concept and one clear conclusion this report draws is that it needs to be viewed both over space and over time. This is because actions to achieve sustainability in one area or at one period in time may, through their use of land and other resources, have knock-on effects on other regions and future generations, effects that may be positive or negative.

We need to improve our understanding how complex systems function. We require better knowledge not just of how the different elements of a system interact (for example climate-water-biodiversity interactions at different spatial and temporal scales) but also how environmental impacts and objectives relate to other areas of societal concern, including human health, ethics and livelihoods. We need methods to examine these interactions, and indicators that we can use to measure progress.

Finally, while calls for more research are familiar and often justified, these should not be used as an excuse for inaction. We need to work out what mix of policies are needed to transform thinking about sustainable intensification into practice.

About Tara Garnett

Tara Garnett runs the Food Climate Research Network at the University of Oxford. Her work focuses on the contribution that the food system makes to greenhouse-gas emissions and the scope for emissions reduction, looking at both technological and behaviour options within the context of policy making.

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