Neil Palmer/ CIAT

Sustainable intensification of agriculture involves increasing yields from the same area of land while decreasing negative environmental impacts of agricultural production and increasing the provision of environmental services.

Although this definition seems harmless enough, sustainable intensification has in recent years become a controversial term. For proponents, it is a promising new paradigm to guide agriculture in an era of expanding food demand and increasing resource scarcity. For detractors, it is an oxymoron: an excuse for perpetuating the current corporate model of intensive farming, made palatable with a sugar coating of sustainability.

The need for intensification is based on three widely accepted assumptions:

The world must produce significantly more food in the coming decades to feed a growing (up to 9 billion by 2050) and increasingly affluent population
The arable land base, that already occupies about a third of the terrestrial land mass, cannot be expanded significantly
Agricultural production must become more sustainable and resource use more efficient to preserve the natural capital on which agriculture relies

The controversy relates to how sustainability is achieved.

When the term “sustainable intensification” was originally coined in the 1990s it was in the context of smallholder agriculture in the developing world where productivity was predominantly low and degradation of natural resources a major concern. The original conception was an agro-ecological approach that focused on livelihoods and “working with nature” to ensure sustainability. The intention was harmonizing with nature to avoid ecological collapse.  

More recently sustainable intensification is being increasingly perceived as a global framework for agricultural production. Against this background some, ecomodernists are arguing for an alternative paradigm. They propose that instead of working with nature, the best way forward is to reduce human reliance on ecosystems and “decouple from nature”. They argue that this is effectively what has happened in developed countries where technology has built a protective partition that effectively enables people to live increasingly removed from ecosystems. Proponents of this argument support intensive high input agricultural models and the use of biotechnology to intensify production. Their argument is that this approach “minimizes” the area of the human footprint, thereby sparing areas for nature.

As can be imagined this second approach is an anathema to those that originally coined the phrase and the debate is becoming increasingly heated. Modern approaches to agriculture want to achieve multiple goals: agricultural productivity and growth, livelihood protection, and biodiversity conservation. The question remains, how is this best achieved?

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