Sustainable intensification — a superb idea! (Like its close friend, sustainable growth)

By Joern Fischer

Some of our world’s leading ecologists are now advocating sustainable intensification for the sake of nature; preferably in combination with new protected areas — we’ve commented on these issues before, regarding a paper by Jon Foley et al. and one by Ben Phalan et al.

High profile papers, with politically appealling concepts like “sustainable intensification” can help to shape political agendas. And they can badly backfire … The Guardian now has a discussion on “super farms”, which are, from what I gather, super-large farms. And guess what — part of their appeal is their “sustainability”.

It should be obvious that disclaimers by scientists about what kind of intensification is needed will be lost on those who are going to advocate intensification at all costs. Conservationists advocating “sustainable intensification” should recognise that they are advocating a free lunch; something politically inherently appealling; and conceptually inherently flawed. The small brother of sustainable (material) growth.

Is it possible in some circumstances to get more out of land, without doing much harm? Oxfam is advocating increasing rice yields at no environmental costs, which seems convincing. Other convincing examples probably exist. But this must not distract from the fact that most types of intensification will be environmentally harmful, and most importantly — WILL DO NOTHING to feed the world’s poor. Super-farms for who?

Feeding  the world’s people better is necessary because a billion people remain malnourished. But that’s not primarily because of a lack of food, but because of food insecurity, stemming from our industrial agricultural systems and the global markets that go with them. Selling our farmland ecology as “food security ecology” is, plainly, wrong — but nicely plays into the hands of those looking for “green” reasons to advocate intensification.

Anyway, I digress … my point is that ecologists advocating sustainable intensification may inadvertently play into the hands of those advocating intensification full stop.  It’s lovely to be able to hide behind an ecological argument like “sustainability” to push through one’s industry interests. We need to be more careful how to deal with such issues if we don’t want our science to backfire! … or articles like today’s in The Guardian will take over. As scientists, we shape reality: do we really want to add further fuel to the possible reality of farmland intensification?

Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe only in some situations — and then we need to very carefully state what those are.

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