Overturning the myth of a dichotomy between ‘intensification-sustainability’



The intensification of agriculture in the last 50 years has resulted in increased agricultural productivity and a surplus in global per capita food thanks to the Green Revolution. It has also saved millions of forestlands. However, the negative impacts and externalities caused by incentivising high chemical and agricultural input use in recent decades were only understood as ‘post factum’, suggesting that the consequences of current actions may likewise be far from fully understood.

Given that increasing population growth will impose tremendous pressures on food production, questions about optimal approaches to meet increasing food demands and avoid hunger, especially in developing countries, have recently been dominating global discourse on agriculture and sustainable development. One such question is whether sustainably intensifying agriculture can meet increasing food demands, while addressing the incremental threats of climate change.

Without doubt, climate change will affect agricultural production and distribution systems, and people’s livelihoods in risk-prone areas. This poses social and geopolitical challenges and may disproportionately affect the world’s poorest and least food secure people. For instance, extreme weather and the rise sea level may pose existential threats to people living in deserts, drylands, mountains, and Small Island Developing States, further aggravating conflicts, migration and displacement in the next decades. Transforming food and agriculture systems is therefore vital if we are to meet food and nutrition needs for the growing population in the face of climate change.

Despite a flurry of policy recommendations, debates and counter-rebuttals, there is a strong consensus that sustainable intensification provides a vital framework for raising productivity in a sustainable manner, even though it is not a panacea for food security. It must be stated that the dichotomy between ‘intensification-sustainability’ is simply artificial. Food is a key outcome of most agricultural activities. Without agriculture, there can be no food security. To feed the rapidly growing population, production of nutritious food must be intensified on existing farmlands, and be done sustainably.

Five levers to guide sustainable agriculture

If we must feed the growing population and live on a planet that will not be overcome by climatic catastrophes, we must rethink the way we produce, consume and manage food. There is need to also cut food waste and losses, which will not only increase food availability, but also reduce the cost of producing it and associated emissions. FAO has developed a common vision that can collectively guide the process of transition to sustainable agriculture and food systems. This involves five interconnected principles, which have recently been developed into 20 actions to guide policymakers. These five principles are outlined as follows:

First, increase productivity, employment and value addition in food systems. The challenge is how to achieve efficiency with minimum environmental impact. This requires increased resource-use efficiency by integrating production systems, while reducing emission intensities. Sustainable intensification can increase productivity, foster sustainable consumption, reduce food waste and loss, encourage the re-use and recycling of organic materials, and use inputs more efficiently. This warrants widespread adoption of sustainable practices, innovations and technologies at scale. Efforts to sustainably intensify agriculture must strengthen family farmers, especially empowering women and youths, and create rural jobs, as well as strengthen infrastructure along the value chain.

Second, protect and enhance natural resources. More food implies more demand on the natural resource base. The world’s ability to feed itself will be threatened unless there is a deliberate effort to restore, conserve and manage the existing agro-ecosystems in a sustainable way. Agricultural intensification must also contribute to mitigating climate change. Deliberate efforts are needed to optimise synergies between management of natural resources, increasing productivity and income, and improved livelihoods.

Third, improve livelihoods and foster inclusive economic growth. Sustainability takes more than simply intensifying agriculture. A balanced emphasis on productivity-sustainability – especially on the social and economic dimensions of food security – must not be underplayed. The transformation of food systems that empower smallholders and are underpinned by social, economic and market considerations are vital.

Fourth, enhance resilience of people, communities and ecosystems. Promoting sustainable food and agriculture that is ‘climate-smart’ can be a major driver of a greener economy and be a sure way to address food security, nutrition and climate change. This includes using crop varieties that are more resilient to climate extremes, agroforestry, agroecology, conservation agriculture, improvements in agricultural irrigation, pest management, fodder crop management and other considerations.

Fifth, adapt governance to new challenges. Responsive governance is the biggest lever to exert when it comes to removing barriers to sustainable production intensification, ensuring social inclusiveness, and regulating conditions in favour of sustainable and resilient agriculture and food systems. These require more innovative, integrated and holistic approaches to governance that connect multiple dimensions. Such governance and policies must foster investment in sustainable food and agriculture systems, in tandem with societal needs.