Does “sustainable intensification” distract from sustainable development?

By Joern Fischer and Jan Hanspach

Tara Garnett and Charles Godfray recently published a major report on “sustainable intensification”. More recently, Garnett, Godfray, and several other authors published a paper in Science on the same topic, entitled “Sustainable intensification in agriculture: premises and policies”. Both the original report and the subsequent paper touch on many of the key issues facing food systems (and food policy) today. Both are careful to emphasize that sustainable intensification is not a “magic bullet”, but rather needs to be considered alongside a series of other policy goals, namely those relating to biodiversity and land use, animal welfare, human nutrition, rural economies and sustainable development.

We appreciate that Garnett et al. have tried to embed sustainable intensification within a broader context. However, on reading the paper, we felt that something in the logic was fundamentally problematic — should sustainable intensification be seen as a policy goal interfacing with sustainable development? Should it not rather be seen as a policy goal that is subordinate to sustainable development?

Based on these questions, we wrote a short response to the paper by Garnett et al., which appeared in Science today (the brutally short and not entirely helpful title is courtesy of Science by the way …). Key points of our response are:

  • We agree that sustainable intensification has to be part of a multipronged and context-dependent strategy for food security, and that it is also necessary to curb consumption, improve governance, and reduce waste.
  • We disagree that sustainable intensification should be pursued as one of several issues to be tackled in parallel.
  • Rather, measures to improve equity, access, and distribution are prerequisites for intensification to have any benefits for food security.
  • Intensification therefore makes sense only in a context of genuine strategies for sustainable development, not as a policy goal in its own right.

We look forward to comments on this important, but contentious issue!

7 thoughts on “Does “sustainable intensification” distract from sustainable development?

  1. Hi Joern – congratulations for this!
    We developed a document in Warsaw with a team led by Tim Benton on the role of Europe in the global food security:

    One point here was (also?) that we need cross sectorial approaches, inclusing the creation of ‘novel’ institutions at the level of the EU to tackle the complex problem of food production and security and environmental issues. One colleague told as I remember that we need a common agricultural and environmental policy instead of just agricultural policy. Many great thoughts.

  2. Pingback: What we’ve been reading this week – One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed the World?

  3. Pingback: Johan Rockström on sustainable intensification | Ideas for Sustainability

  4. Pingback: Why the discourse on sustainable intensification needs to change | Ideas for Sustainability

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