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The fuss over intensified farming

A woman plows her fields in Mali
(Ray Witlin/World Bank)

Spikes in food prices and extreme climatic events have threatened global food security in recent years, raising concerns about humanity’s ability to feed its growing population.

These fears prompted scientists from the Royal Society to propose, in 2009, the “sustainable intensification” (SI) of agriculture. The term, which by most definitions means increasing yields with minimum damage to the environment and without drawing more land under production, is not new, but it has attracted a great deal of controversy.

This is because various stakeholders - agriculture-based corporations, aid agencies, academics, activists and civil society organizations - assumed SI would employ certain kinds of production systems to increase crop yields. Some civil society organizations argued corporations and certain aid agencies would use the push for SI to promote the use of genetically modified (GM) crops and chemical fertilizers, for example.

A new paper published in Science attempts to clarify and, to some degree, depoliticize the ideas behind SI.  SI is part of “a multipronged strategy to achieving sustainable food security rather than an all-encompassing solution”, the authors write.

"Most of the projects are business-as-usual industrial agriculture"

Lead author Tara Garnett, of the Food Climate Research Network at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, told IRIN they deliberately chose not to specify the agricultural techniques or technologies that should be adopted to achieve higher yields, an effort to prevent the claim that SI promotes GM.

The paper argues that food system sustainability will require waste reduction and improved governance, as well as increased food accessibility and affordability. It must also manage demand for meat and dairy products, which are resource-intensive.


The paper has not won over SI’s staunchest opponents.

One of the harshest critics of SI is the NGO Friends of the Earth International (FOEI), which published A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing? An analysis of the ‘sustainable intensification’ of agriculture in 2012.

The report examined the power and politics “that drive the academic and science agenda on agriculture, including the politics behind the use of the term SI”, explained co-author Kirtana Chandrasekaran, who is also the coordinator of FOEI’s Food Sovereignty Programme.

Chandrasekaran told IRIN by email that there are flaws in the conclusions of the Science paper. She suggested three edits: “The first conclusion is flawed - the goal of intensification is context… and [is] not an end in itself, whereas sustainability is ultimately a non-negotiable, wherever and whenever. So it should be prioritized.

“The second conclusion should acknowledge what the paper has [acknowledged]- that the term has also been misused and, in some cases abused. Additionally [it should reflect] an assessment of the role of the whole supply chain and how business as usual should not continue to be promoted through SI.”

A 2008 UN-sponsored study called the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) provided a way forward on improving food production through agricultural science and technology. This study has been ignored and should have been given prominence, she added.

“Looking at the institutions and projects that are being justified by SI, as we outline in our report, gives a hint why. Most of the projects are business-as-usual industrial agriculture. And one of the key differences between, for example, the Royal Society report that re-ignited the term SI and the IAASTD is that the Royal Society is not critical of GM crops whereas the IAASTD was clear that GM has little role to play in feeding the world, simply because it is not effective, not appropriate for small farmers and risky.”

Uma Lele, who co-authored Transforming Agricultural Research for Development (AR4D), a concept paper that advocated SI, was also critical of the Science article, saying it was “too vague and general”.

“There is no mention of where in the world consumption patterns will have to change and how that will be achieved… and all have a tendency to coin new phrases without explaining fully what is the difference between them,” Lele said.


Tara Garnett on “Sustainable Intensification”

Q: What is the goal - to produce enough to feed everyone? According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, we already produce enough. Is the issue making food cheaper and accessible?

A: As you say, food security is multidimensional and not just about “more food.” The paper argues very strongly that achieving a sustainable food system - which means enough nutritious, sustainable and affordable/accessible food for everyone - will also require measures to address demand for resource-intensive meat and dairy products, reduce waste in the food system and improve governance, a challenge that includes the goal of making food more affordable/accessible and balancing supply and demand effectively.

Some more food will inevitably be needed, but we have deliberately not specified how much. Clearly, the more we achieve in terms of demand management, governance and waste reduction, the less “more food” will be needed… The goal of SI is to develop approaches and techniques that can deliver yield increases where and when they are needed, but to do so sustainably. At times, yields will need to be maintained or even in some cases reduced, if they are to be sustainable. It is one of a range of approaches needed to achieve sustainable food security, but not the only one.

Q: Why do we need these new terms? Why not just concentrate on developing sustainable agriculture?

A: You’re right, there are any number of terms out there, including agro ecology, ecological intensification and so forth. Sustainable intensification has a fairly long pedigree - it was first used in the 1990s - and it rose to prominence in UK discourse. We chose this phrase because it was attracting controversy and [we] wanted to explore why. To an extent, it doesn’t matter what phrase is used, so long as the premises underlying its goals are clear and ways forward developed.

Q: What is the place of GM technology in your view? How should it be used in terms of improving food production?

A: It has a part to play but is by no means a silver bullet solution. I think, to an extent, the problem with GM is that people on either side of the debate can’t seem to get beyond it, to discuss the context for its implementation - not just environmental but also social and economic - and its applicability or otherwise to different contexts.

Q: Do you believe the stakeholders in GM tech are hijacking the food production agenda?

A: This is hard to answer. The stakeholders both for and against GM are hijacking the food sustainability discourse, distracting attention [from] the much larger and more multidimensional discussion that is needed.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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