Today’s guest author kicks off this month’s Landscapes Roundtable series with a discussion of key considerations on the topic of sustainable intensification. Although his background is in landscape ecology and biodiversity conservation, Professor Fischer has also collaborated extensively with social scientists on interdisciplinary research. He currently runs a large research project in Central Romania (one of Europe’s least intensified farming regions), and coordinates the blog ideas4sustainability.
Intensification, and especially “sustainable intensification,” is now frequently being hailed as a potential solution to simultaneously address concerns about environmental protection and food security. There is no doubt that, in some places, and under certain circumstances, intensification of agriculture is precisely what is needed. But here, I argue that calls for intensification need to be met with healthy skepticism. Key questions are: Who intensifies, which crops, and for what purpose? Who benefits? And how is intensification coordinated across entire landscapes?
Who intensifies, which crops, and for what purpose? In subsistence systems, or semi-subsistence systems with primarily local trade, additional agricultural production generated by intensification ends up benefiting local people. Thus, if there is a genuine shortage of food at local levels, finding ways to produce more locally can be useful. Yet, even here, it is important to recognize potential trade-offs: many traditional subsistence systems generate a wide range of crops, providing redundancy and resilience, so that moderate yields could be attained in virtually all conditions (for example, at times of drought).
Modern intensification often relies on a narrower range of crop varieties, and often, these are more tightly dependent on external inputs than traditional varieties were; and can be susceptible to complete crop failures in poor years. Higher yields thus can come at a cost to crop diversity (and hence resilience), and they can inadvertently increase dependence on global markets (e.g. fertilizer), and their price fluctuations. An extreme example of that is when intensification is primarily used to grow crops for export; and even more so if intensification is undertaken by foreign investors. In such situations, food security often will still be part of the political rhetoric around intensification, but the actual benefits for food security are far less obvious.
Key point 1: “Intensification” and even “sustainable intensification” are in danger of becoming empty phrases, whose value simply cannot be assessed without further information. As a first step, information is needed on who intensifies, which crops, and for what purpose.
Who benefits? Closely linked to the first point is the question of who benefits. Many discussions of “sustainable intensification” have emphasized environmental sustainability – ignoring that sustainability is a far broader concept, and most importantly, one that is about equity and justice. Producing more, as a blanket strategy, may not help sustainability at all. As colleagues have argued, we already produce enough calories to feed everyone on our planet, yet a billion people go hungry. To illustrate how nonsensical a general call for intensification in the name of food security can be (e.g. advocating for yield gap closures), I only need to look at our own study area in Romania. First, even minor additions of artificial fertilizer would destroy the extraordinary biodiversity of grassland systems in this area; second, the higher yields obtained would end up …. well, where? We don’t know, but most likely not in the hands of those currently starving – but in global markets, whose prices are dictated by the wants of the rich for animal protein, not by the needs of the poor for minimal nutrition.
Key point 2: “Intensification” and even “sustainable intensification”, at worst, may destroy the ecological integrity of entire landscapes, without benefiting those in need of more food. To avoid such perverse outcomes, clear consideration, from the outset, is needed regarding who is going to benefit from intensification, and via which mechanisms.
How is intensification coordinated across entire landscapes? Finally, a desire for intensification tends to imply concern for efficiency, but inadvertently tends to downplay resilience. At a landscape scale, we need to be very careful about considering both (and especially resilience). A large monoculture is equivalent to placing all eggs in one basket – if its fertilizer is harder to get, if its pests become more abundant or resistant, or if its global prices drop, the system is extremely vulnerable to negative consequences of this. Therefore, a more resilient solution is to aim for diversified landscapes. Perhaps in contrast to the dominant wisdom, many traditional systems are efficient as well as diverse. They may not be efficient for just one crop, but when considered as a whole (e.g. producing fibre, crops and wood, maintaining water quality, and recycling waste products) they are. It is this kind of intensification that we should try to learn from, not the kind facilitated by the (fossil-fuel-subsidised) Green Revolution.
Key point 3: “Intensification” and even “sustainable intensification” are often narrowly defined with a specific crop in mind. Important additional considerations, especially at the landscape scale, are whether systems as a whole are both efficient and resilient in producing a portfolio of useful goods and services – from freshwater to food (or even export) crops.
In conclusion, I believe that healthy criticism is warranted regarding widespread calls for intensification, “sustainable” or otherwise. Implemented poorly, a narrow view of intensification has the potential to further exacerbate existing social and ecological problems, especially if implemented at landscape scale. To avoid such pitfalls, the questions posed here should be asked for a given target system (and only for a given target system, as there is no universally correct answer). The nuanced and careful application of locally suitable intensification strategies can be valuable for both people and nature – but careless enthusiasm to increase yields at large scales has the potential to benefit neither.