Neil Palmer/ CIAT
Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

This post is written in response to: sustainable intensification of agriculture: oxymoron or real deal?

The term sustainable intensification can sound rather nebulous. Understanding what it means and whether it is practical or even achievable are difficult questions. I offer a few points for consideration to start off this debate with a focus on global agriculture.

When we talk about sustainable intensification, we are indicating that there is a need to find ways to continue to improve agriculture’s productivity – in other words to intensify agricultural production – while at the same time reversing the damage it is inflicting on the planet. I define sustainable intensification as agricultural systems and value chains that function in ways that meet the rising demands of a growing population and increased consumerism while simultaneously improving the ecosystem services and environment on which agriculture and life depend.

Is this the only viable way? Perhaps not. Others, for example, propose that we hope for technological improvements or assume the environment will be robust enough to handle our future demands on it. Although I think that sustainable intensification is not a silver bullet, I believe it is a vital idea that we need to adopt for our future. In addition, the reality is that the negative impacts of unsustainable intensification will always first hit the people with little or no voice – the poor, the marginalized and the environment. Eventually, the impacts will catch us all. I prefer to take a precautionary approach when it comes to the planet’s health. The earth I want to pass to the next generation is one that does not continue to damage the climate, soils, water, ecosystems and biodiversity in its rush to develop and feed our growing population.


Breaking it down     

As much as I am proponent of sustainable intensification, I feel that the concept can be caught up in discussions about productivity without proper consideration of the political economy and issues of power. The agri-food systems and supply chains that produce and deliver our food are full of inequalities. These inequalities relate to power, politics and economics. How resources and subsidies are distributed, how decisions are made with respect to seed and land allocations, and who gains access to food, are all issues that need to be considered to achieve sustainable intensification.

The next question to raise would be: is sustainable intensification achievable before we cause irreversible damage to the environment? I remain optimistic, but I also think that this will require a step change in the way agriculture is currently implemented. One of the main issues is the lack of value we currently put on the key inputs into agriculture, such as water. We know that agriculture uses as much as 92% of the water consumed in the world’s economies and about 20% of the energy.

Energy is often valued – although highly subsidized while water, on the other hand is often provided free. I think we need a system that values the ecosystem services on which agriculture depends in order for us to be sustainable. Our continued obsession with cheap food, our habit of wasting 30% of the food we grow, our rising demands for meat and our disregard for the seasonality of produce are all areas that need to be improved if we are to reach sustainable intensification.


For Africa, sustainable intensification is a necessary evil. But that should be accompanied by sustainable extensification especially into drylands (semi-arid and arid lands) that are often neglected.

These articles might be of your interest too.

Dahal, B. M., Sitaula, B. K., and Bajracharya, R. M. (2008). Sustainable agricultural intensification for livelihood and food security in Nepal, Asian journal of water, environment and pollution, 5 (2): 1-12. Bajracharya, R. M and Dahal, B. M. (2012). Agricultural intensification, Encyclopedia of Sustainability, Berkshire Publishing Group, pp. 7-10.
Dahal, B. M., Nyborg, I., Sitaula, B. K., and Bajracharya, R. M. (2009). Agricultural intensification: food insecurity to income security in a mid-hill watershed of Nepal, International journal of agricultural sustainability, 7 (4): 249-260.

Thank you for the article suggestions and comments.

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