Sustainable: providing for current needs without compromising the capacity to provide for the future.
Intensification: enhancing productivity in a given area in order to extract greater yields.
Sustainable Intensification (S.I.) is an increasingly popular solution to the food and climate crisis which threatens the majority of our planet. With hundreds of millions going hungry, swathes of forests and other ecosystems cleared for agricultural production, colossal degradation of existing farmland, and rising food price volatility, something is evidently wrong – governments, NGOs, and agriculturalists worldwide are desperate for a solution.
Fortunately, S.I. has emerged through the coalesence of agribusiness drive and academic approval from prominent researchers like Charles Godfray and John Beddington. It strides down the centre of two tradiationally opposed forces in the food security debate – simultaneously blessing the continued maximising of food production wherever possible, to the satisfaction of market forces and (inter)national governments, while apparently circumventing the destructive consequences of the agricultural intensification of the last 60 years, to the satisfaction of environmental objectives and concerns about the longevity of our current food supply.
Sounds perfect – perhaps, too good to be entirely true? In this blog post we will critically analyse some of the reasons for its primacy as a strategy for food (in)security, before evaluating its central policies.
A pivotal moment in the emergence of sustainable intensification was the release of a claim by the FAO that global food production needed to double by 2050 in order to meet rising food demand. This sent shockwaves across the world, and became a reference point for the majority of debates around agricultural policy. However, closer investigation revealed that the FAO paper had actually only suggested a 70% overall increase – and even this was based on a number of questionable assumptions about global production and consumption patterns into the future.
In Godfray’s influential papers, he draws on several sources in order to justify intensification of agriculture against extensification (widening area farmed in order to reduce pressure on farmed land), concluding that intensification causes relatively little environmental damage. Looking into the papers he uses, such as Burney et al. (2010), we find that they compare the known environmental damages of the Green Revolution (intensification) against hypothetical histories where agricultural technology was frozen at 1961 levels and the world was forced to progress through extensification alone. GHG levels and other environmental impacts are then calculated. However, modelling this alternate history while retaining socioeconomic data from the intensification scenario is nonsensical – if intensification halted, why would other socioeconomic factors progress in the same way? It was the Green Revolution which enabled massive increases in production, keeping food prices down, encouraging consumption and delaying the need to scrutinise the suitablity of a productionist, neoliberal programme for food production – as well as an infinite amount of other interlinked changes in society that are far too complex to model in a simplistic ‘parallel universe’ scenario where one variable is changed. Assuming that vast tracts of land would be placed under agriculture (thereby creating high GHG emissions) to meet demand from the population of a parallel universe lacks scientific validity. Criticisms such as these are easily lost under the layers of propagation that occur through the accumulation of academia, and its conversion into policy.
‘Sustainable Intensification’ is, like many buzzwords in science and policy, loosely and variably defined. It is a holistic term which aims to encompass all potential tools for increasing production without threatening the environment. Useful as this is, vulnerability to exploitation can ensue. Below is a telling example of this, from an FOEI report:
Ultimately, S.I. appears to fit conveniently with the current modus operandi, requiring little structural change to achieve goals of sustainability. Technological solutions are central, thereby ignoring entrenched political and socioeconomic barriers to the empowerment of agriculturalists and the need for prioritisation of environment over yields, risks and export volumes. Godfray acknowledges this in his work, saying “most of the authors that framed the concept of sustainable intensification have stressed the importance of taking a food system perspective” – though this might absolve researchers of the consequences of their work, the influence this will have on the business leaders and policymakers facing constant pressures for growth, quarterly margins and western ‘development’ goals measured primarily through yields and GDP, is questionable.
Primary means to developing ‘Sustainable Intensification’ include:
Efficient use of inputs
One of the pillars of S.I. is the effienct use of commercial inputs, following widespread incidence of ecosystem destruction due to fertiliser runoff, and death or deformation from excessive or unregulated pesticide use. Evidence has shown that less is more when it comes to fertiliser use to avoid toxic algal blooms in waterways, but on the whole the intensification of agriculture will require significant increases in fertiliser use across lands currently not farmed with them.
Phosphorous is an essential part to all fertilisers as it’s the most limiting factor to growth in natural conditions. The only significant source is through the mining and processing of phosphate rock, and there is no known or apparent alternative source. Demand has increased massively since the Green Revolution and looks to rise by 50-100% by 2050. Reserves are dwindling and it has been suggested that ‘peak phosphorous’ will occur at about 2030 or has already happened, and that supplies will become scarce or exhausted in 50-100 years.
In his paper, Godfray’s response to this deals in assumptions and doesn’t even mention reducing consumption (emphasis added):
Genetically modified crops have been touted as the magic bullet of climatically threatened agriculture. New varities of crops will increase yields, resist drought and be invulnerable to the pests and blights sweeping continents.
The reality of the situation is less inspiring. The UK government suggests that some of these crop types could take up to 40 years to develop, data suggests that GM research is focused almost entirely on maize or soybean monocultures, GM maize doesn’t perform any better than traditional types in driest conditions, and major GM organisations have done little research into whether GM research actually reduces poverty or protects the environment.
Market access & land investment
Liberalised trade, private-public partnerships and land investment by large agribusinesses are common staples of any S.I. strategy – a manifestation of the faith placed in market forces to guide our food system along the optimal path.
SAGCOT is a sustainabile intensification project covering 350,000 hectares of land in southern Tanzania looking to “rapidly develop the region’s agricultural potential”, and “benefit the region’s small-scale farmers”. However, the project is converting significant areas of non-agricultural land into intensive commercial farms, and is awarding thousands of acres of government ranches to investors. Market access is an important tool to development, but unevenly benefits larger farms – if not regulated this can limit the success of smaller farmers who have been found to be more sustainable.
Redefining the problem in order to find effective solutions
Regardless of Godfray’s calls to take a holistic view of Sustainable Intensification, it seems to be inherently production-oriented. Further still, food production has been found to be a relatively uninmportant part of alleviating hunger. We already produce enough food for 10-12 billion people, but asymmetrical economic relationships, consumption patterns and excessive waste means that many people aren’t getting enough.
Despite its claims to the contrary it appears that Sustainable Intensification, for all its merits, is vulnerable to hijacking and insidious shifts towards productionism and profiteering. The ultimate aims of food system reform should be constantly revisited and our methods perpetually scrutinised; rather than trusting huge agricultural corporations and international export gradients to empower smallholder farmer, we should look more closely at alternative methods by which we can empower smallholder farmers, protect existing farmland from degradation, and emphasise the important of ecosystem health.
Our aim should be to create an equitable food system that is resilient to environmental change; one that creates prosperity and empowerment from the bottom up; and whose primary aim, rather than farm output or GDP, is the adequate and continued nutrition of all.