New paper: Putting back meaning into “sustainable intensification”

By Jacqueline Loos and Joern Fischer

J. Loos, D. J. Abson, M. J. Chappell, J. Hanspach, F. Mikulcak, M. Tichit, and J. Fischer, Putting back meaning into “sustainable intensification”, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, available on the Frontiers website (for those with subscriptions), or here.

Many recent high profile papers on food security argue something along these lines: First, food security is a growing concern in the light of global population growth, which is anticipated to exceed 9 billion people in the year 2050.  A growing human population (with diets shifting towards increasing use of animal proteins) will require larger amounts of food in the future. Second, to meet the future demand for food, an increase in food production is needed on a global scale. And finally: To achieve global food security without compromising even more of Earth’s surface for agricultural purposes, scientific literature and policy documents frequently hail “sustainable intensification” as a way to optimize agricultural production, for example via the closure of yield gaps, thus ensuring sufficient food supply and helping to achieve global food security.

Our new paper offers one of the first critical appraisals of “sustainable intensification” in the academic literature. Even though we appreciate ecological concerns about agricultural land expansion (which are currently central in the discourse), we argue that sustainable intensification in its current use is unhelpful to improve global food security. In fact, there is even a danger of it being counter-constructive because of the missing integration of various long-term social, economic and ecological objectives, all of which are key to sustainability.  An overarching goal of our paper therefore is to help redirect collective “academic brainpower” away from a narrow focus on producing more, towards a more holistic approach considering food security as one important part of sustainable development. To this end, we argue that the ideas of distributive and procedural justice can help to put back meaning into the term “sustainable intensification”.

Contrasting ways to conceptualize the role of intensification for food security. (a) Conventional view of several variables influencing food security, implying that variables are independent and additive (additional variables may be considered important by some authors). (b) Alternative view, highlighting interactions and conditionality, with increased production only increasing food security if it passes through distributive and procedural filters. According to this view, intensification can only be said to be sustainable if it successfully passes through filters of procedural and distributive justice.

Contrasting ways to conceptualize the role of intensification for food security. (a) Conventional view of several variables influencing food security, implying that variables are independent and additive (additional variables may be considered important by some authors). (b) Alternative view, highlighting interactions and conditionality, with increased production only increasing food security if it passes through distributive and procedural filters. According to this view, intensification can only be said to be sustainable if it successfully passes through filters of procedural and distributive justice.

Our paper is critical of past work that – implicitly or explicitly – has hailed sustainable intensification as a globally attractive solution to food security. We hope that our re-appraisal of sustainable intensification will help to re-focus our energies towards a more holistic agenda. Sometimes, intensification is precisely what is needed, but sometimes it is not. Instead of buying into a vague global vision for “sustainable intensification”, we argue there is a need to work at regional scales, and consider the vital importance of governance and distribution issues in the context of truly sustainable food systems.

More production is of no use to food security, nor can it be said to be “sustainable”, unless it reaches those in need of more food.

The full paper is available here.

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7 thoughts on “New paper: Putting back meaning into “sustainable intensification”

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

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