“Two souls, alas, do dwell within his breast; The one is ever parting from the other”
The above quote is from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s historical rendition of Faust. It was used by Karl Marx to describe the internal struggle of capitalism where a desire to accumulate wealth must contend with the desire to also enjoy spending it (Wayne 2012). When I read this I can’t help but feel its aptness for describing the debate between sustainable intensification (SI) and agroecology.
The UN predicts that the global population will reach 9.6 billion by 2050. This combined with an expectation that global economic growth will nearly eliminate absolute poverty means that the demand for grain alone will rise to 3 billion tonnes. Overall food production will have to increase by a sobering 70% using dwindling natural resources (FAO 2009). These statics have rightly produced anxiety amongst academics, policy makers, and citizens, yet as malnourishment threatens millions of people, a consensus on how to address them remain elusive. SI has been put froth as a means of meeting the challenge only to find opposition by proponents of a local agroecological approach. But why is this so? The original definitions of the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
SI is defined as “production wherein yields are increased without adverse environmental impact and without the cultivation of more land” (Garret 2012). Agroecology, on the other hand, is simply the study of ecological processes found in agricultural systems (Wezel et al 2009. However, I find it interesting that in today’s literature you can find agroecology defined as “a mechanism to combat large-scale agribusiness”. This insinuates that agroecology is a certain type of farming, a type that may be combative to SI. I put forth that opportunistic stakeholders have hijacked these terms for their own devices and have turned them into movements, making the terms irreconcilable. In doing so, they may be detracting attention from the more critical issue of consumerism.
We must remember that SI and agroecology are not approaches to food production but rather are goals. Godfray 2015 argues that SI was meant to bring together people interested in environmental health with those interested in food production to meet the dual challenge of meeting food demands in an environmentally neutral manner. The latter goal being shared with agroecology. However, vested stakeholders of food security movements have used both it and SI to frame the issue of food insecurity differently. SI proponents consider food insecurity a matter of a lack of technology and modernization while agroecology frames the issue along socioeconomic and political lines (Kershen 2013). What is tragic is that the fault line between these two approaches is a matter of ideology, which is always deeply entrenched and difficult to change. The connotations that have been adapted to these terms is now a matter of SI being high input, top-down, environment degrading, and Western. Agroecology is synonymous with organic, local, bottom-up, labor intensive, and low-yield.
To be fair, advocates of both movements have legitimate concerns about the other. History has shown that efficiency does not automatically engender morality and the productivist temptations of SI are legitimate concerns. Further, addressing food security without addressing food sovereignty and food justice is highly likely to result in dependency. Food rights are a necessary component of the broader democratic struggle of the Global South. Conversely, crop yields are 5-40% lower using the farming methods of agroecology movements as compared to conventional harvests (Seufert 2012). Further, the FAO predicts that 70% of the global population will be urban by 2050, meaning that comprehensive agroecology practices would likely be impossible.
Despite this line of reasoning, it is still not beneficial to view agriculture as such a dichotomy. Doing so hides the fact that assumed elements of one or the other may exist in both. For example, Godfray 2015 argues that environmental degradation and poor animal welfare are readily associated with SI while malnourishment and slash-and-burn techniques are two small examples of how animal suffering and environmental damage can be equally present on local, smallholder farms. Conversely, the positive aspects of intensification is not foreign to agroecology.
This dichotomy pigeonholes the scope of each movement’s benefits. What I mean is that I find it limiting to define the scale on which each approach can be used when there’s no one format of what SI or agroecology should look like in practice. The obvious rebuttal to this would be that the imprecise nature of the two terms is what allows them to be conscripted into the agendas of food movements to begin with. Thus, I believe it is important to take a step back and premise these approaches with a broader discussion of what we’re willing to allow in order to achieve food security. If sustainable intensification meant polluting our entire global water supply with fertilizer runoff or if agroecology meant legitimizing slave labor then obviously neither would be acceptable. I’m being facetious but I think the point is made that the discourse surrounding each term carries epistemological assumptions that reflect our social norms. These are what I believe are truly being debated over in the SI-agroecology debate. Establishing social norms is like establishing the rules of the game of how to compare SI and agroecology and to do so with a degree of neutrality. Another way of saying this is that the SI vs agroecology debate is only as morally neutral as the context we put it in.
Lastly, the focus on supply-side initiatives may detract from the demand-side issues we need to address. Food waste, environmental health and consumer health are all casualties of unsustainable consumption levels in the Global North. While we want to produce more food to ensure food security, we simply can’t stomach the idea of eating less. Godfray notes “while it is possible to construct scenarios where dramatic changes in diet and reductions in waste enable a population of 10 billion people to be fed on the area of land currently in agriculture using existing…farming methods…the likelihood of this occurring in the real world is vanishingly small”. Thus, I continue to see the significance of von Goethe’s tragedy as the internal struggle of meeting a common goal plays out not only in our food system but also within ourselves.