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Sustainable intensification in agriculture. Navigating a course through competing food system priorities

The report is based on discussions held at a two day workshop held in January 2012 which was coorganised by The Food Climate Research Network and the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food

The Food Climate Research Network and the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food have jointly published a new report entitled: Sustainable intensification in agriculture. Navigating a course through competing food system priorities.

The report is based on discussions held at a two day workshop held in January 2012 which was coorganised by both organisations. The workshop brought together key thinkers from the academic and policy community, and from diverse disciplines, to consider the meanings, issues and challenges around sustainable intensification in general, and particularly in relation to three areas of concern: environmental sustainability; animal welfare and human wellbeing, specifically nutrition. The report was written by Tara Garnett (FCRN) and Charles Godfray (OMPFF).  The workshop participants are listed in the report and commented extensively on the draft version.

We are particularly keen to hear your comments on the report and are inviting FCRN mailing list members to do so here.

Specifically, we’d welcome your views on a. how effectively the report addresses the issues it raises b. omissions – ie. areas that are not considered in this report but need examining (certainly the economic dimension is lacking) c.what the priorities for further work in this area should be - as regards research, policy and implementation.

We’d welcome both developing and developed world perspectives (I am aware that the former is underrepresented in FCRN mailings and would like to redress this).

The role of this report, is by no means to present the ‘last word’ on sustainable intensification but, rather, it maps out some of the conceptual territory needed to be explored in more detail; seeks to stimulate discussion; and attempts to identify areas where further work is needed.

It is aimed at policy-makers working in areas relevant to food security. While clearly ‘food security’ is about far more than agricultural policy alone, the purpose of this report is to take a small part of the food security puzzle – agricultural policy – and to consider how it intersects with environmental, animal welfare and health policies. Its argument is that agricultural policy, if it is to help rather than hinder the ultimate goal of food security, needs to operate in an integrated manner with these other policy areas.

Ultimately, this report argues the case for a more ‘systems’ oriented approach to decision making. While it does not go so far as to define a research agenda or make policy recommendations – this would require more work than has been possible in the time available – it urges the need for a substantial programme of future activity in order to:

(a) deepen and extend understanding of systems interactions;

(b) consider and define what specific goals societies wish agricultural production to achieve;

(c) develop metrics that will enable societies to measure progress in achieving them; and

(d) implement successful policies.

Its conclusions as regards sustainable intensification are as follows:

  • Both words in the phrase sustainable intensification need to carry equal weight. Intensification, by reducing pressure on land and other resources, underpins sustainability. Equally, food production in the context of a growing population, must ultimately be sustainable if it is to continue to feed people in the future.
  • Sustainable intensification is not a movement or a grand socio-political vision. It is not a strategy for the food system as a whole but just for one component within that strategy.
  • Sustainable food security requires actions on multiple fronts. On the demand side actions are needed to reduce population growth rates and to curb high levels of per capita consumption, particularly for resource intensive foods. The food system needs to be more efficient by improving governance and reducing food losses and waste throughout the food chain, from farm to plate. On the supply side more food will need to be produced with much less impact on the environment through, we conclude,  sustainable intensification. No one of these actions on its own is able to achieve sustainability and security in the food system. Sustainable Intensification should therefore be seen not as a substitute for, but as a complement to these other necessary measures.
  • Sustainable intensification as a concept should be decoupled from specific production targets. Sustainable intensification is about optimising productivity and a range of environmental and possible other outcomes.
  • Sustainability needs to be viewed over space and time in order to include the indirect effects and consequences of different policies that may impact on other regions and future generations. The indicators used to measure sustainability may also vary according to temporal and spatial scales.
  • Societies need to negotiate what outputs and outcomes from the system they want to intensify production of and to develop metrics that enable us to measure progress against targets.
  • Much can be done with existing knowledge but there is also a need for more research that takes a more systemic approach to food production. Greater understanding of  How the various elements of complex systems interact is needed, both at fine grained and broader spatial and temporal scales. This understanding needs to encompass not just environmental interactions but also the relationship between the environment, human health, ethics and livelihoods. In short, there is a need to recognise better that human technical and societal innovations and the environment influence one another, and to understand these interactions further.
  • More work is needed to translate this thinking into the development of metrics that are relevant to different stakeholders in different contexts, to assist them in implementing appropriate strategies.
  • It is necessary to decide whether sustainable intensification is most helpfully defined only in environmental terms, or whether it should specifically incorporate a broader range of social and ethical concerns. If the former, sustainable intensification nevertheless needs to be mindful of these other concerns, and of the potential for tradeoffs and perverse outcomes.
  • There are major opportunities for improving environmental and productivity outputs simultaneously in agricultural systems with current low levels of production. However, trade-offs between yields and environmental outputs are more prevalent in high external input production systems.
  • More work is needed to ascertain what mix of policies is needed to transform thinking about sustainable intensification into practice. In particular it is important to identify what can be achieved at the national or even more local level, and where further work is needed to improve the international governance framework.
  • While there is a need for more scientific knowledge, it must be recognised that values shape stakeholders’ different attitudes to the food system and their views on what the way forward should be. More deliberate exploration of these different values will help society obtain a deeper and shared understanding of what the challenge is and of  what solutions might work.

The citation for the report is as follows: Garnett T and Godfray C (2012). Sustainable intensification in agriculture. Navigating a course through competing food system priorities, Food Climate Research Network and the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food, University of Oxford, UK