It’s the new buzzword in agriculture, confirmed by proceedings at the 2011 annual conference of the UK’s National Farmers Union, where delegates were often found to be talking about ‘how to get more from less’.
The term ‘sustainable intensification’ began to gain real currency following a report by the UK’s Royal Society, Reaping the benefits: Science and the sustainable intensification of global agriculture. The thrust of the argument is that the old ways of increasing global food production – bring more land under the plough and adopt the high input, high output technologies of the green revolution – will not work in the 21st century.
It is said that bringing more land into use will have more negative impacts than positive. It will accelerating climate change, loss of biodiversity, social dislocation of people living on the land. Likewise, the high input high output model of the green revolution is said to result in unsustainable pressure on water and soils and a model of farming that is heavily reliant on the extravagent and ultimately unsustainble use of fossil fuels. What’s more, this approach has had significant negative externalities in terms of pollution and loss of wildlife habitats.
As the climate continues to change, the problems associated with high input / high output will only become more acute.
So, what’s to be done? The Royal Society is ‘a fellowship of the world’s most eminent scientists and is the oldest scientific academy in continuous existence’. Not surprisingly, their chief recommendation is for more research into the agricultural sciences, as a global effort, oriented around the idea of ‘sustainable intensification’ – getting more food out of a fixed amount of land, but using less water, agrochemicals and fossil fuels. Some have interpreted the emphasis on science research as code for more genetic engineering in agriculture, and this has provoked a hostile response from opponents of GE/GMO technologies.
Of course, those involved in the ‘alternative agriculture’ movement would say they’ve been working towards sustainable intensification for decades. Perhaps the most well known iteration of the ideas of getting more for less is the One Straw Revolution by the Japanese farmer and agronomist Masanobu Fukuoka.
A low input model based around smallholder agriculture, working with natural processes and an emphasis on human development rather than technological revolution was proposed by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development in 2008. The initiative was directed by Robert Watson, chief scientific advisor to the UK Government’s agriculture department.
There are clearly divergent visions for what sustainable intensificaiton really means.
Sustainable intensification also featured heavily in the UK Government Office for Science’s gargantuan study The Future of Food and Farming, published last month. So far, I’ve only read the 200 page final project report but that’s just the tip of an iceberg of analysis, case studies, even a list of The top 100 questions of importance to the future of global agriculture (PDF).
It is clear that many fine minds are thinking about how humanity will feed itself in the 21st century, and there’s much that needs to be done, here in Europe as well as globally. The European Commission’s consultation on the future of the common agricultural policy alludes to some of the key issues at stake.
It is therefore rather disheartening that the vast majority of polticians in the European Parliament who are responsible for ‘reforming’ Europe’s common agricultural policy remain entirely committed to a defence of the status quo.