By Joern Fischer
Just a couple of days ago, we highlighted a new paper we published in Frontiers in Ecology & the Environment on the topic of “sustainable intensification”. By coincidence, two new papers on sustainable intensification landed on my desk today. One, a paper by Charles Godfray and Tara Garnett in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, and two, a report by the RISE Foundation called “The sustainable intensification of European Agriculture“. I guess it is fair to say that it is papers such as these two that motivated us in the first place to critically re-appraise sustainable intensification. For those who haven’t read our Frontiers paper: in a nutshell, we argue that intensification without addressing the issue of who benefits from it, and who is involved in the process, cannot legitimately claim to be “sustainable”. The latest two papers I flagged above are emblematic of an analytical frame that is satisfied to deal with production first, and sort the rest later. Adopting such an approach, while arguing that food systems are “complex”, makes no sense — in complex systems, you can’t meaningfully optimise one component in isolation of the others, but you need to deal with various components and their interactions from the outset. (That’s what our figure in the Frontiers paper, reproduced again below, is all about.)
In their new paper, Godfray and Garnett argue: “In this paper, we review one aspect of this food sustainability challenge: the goal of producing more food. … We argue strongly that SI and indeed any supply side policy should be developed within the broad context of food system policy including issues of diet, waste and governance. Such an approach is needed to address food security but is also important to allay concerns that SI is a part of a purely ‘productionist’ agenda“.
Looking at the report by the RISE Foundation highlights why this concern might in fact be justified. It argues that “… this report confines itself to issues of agricultural production. The reasons are that sustainable intensification refers to production not consumption, and the expertise and interest of the organisations and researchers involved concerns agriculture …“. Yet, this report, too, talks about intensification being “sustainable”.
Personally, I am very tired of a rhetoric that is holistic and interested in “sustainability”, but that ultimately devotes the vast majority of text to the question of how to increase production. Increasing food production, especially at an aggregate level, is not meaningful for sustainability (i.e. inter- and intragenerational justice), nor for food security (unless the question of who benefits is addressed, simply producing more won’t automatically feed people). Yet Godfray and Garnett argue, for example: “The goal of SI is to achieve higher yields at the aggregate level with fewer negative impacts on the environment“.
As we highlighted in our response to Garnett et al. in Science, we agree that a holistic strategy is needed to address food security; and indeed, a holistic response is needed to achieve sustainability. But once the need for holism is recognised, holistic analyses must follow — issues of equity and governance cannot be afterthoughts to be somehow tackled once enough is being produced. After all, enough is being produced to feed everyone, right now, but nearly one billion people are malnourished.
We can produce more, sure. But it turns out that, per capita, we have in fact produced more and more for many years, but yet, the number of malnourished people has remained constant (as shown by Barrett in Science). Why would we believe that producing more in the future will somehow be more successful in addressing food security — unless we deal with equity and governance issues from the outset, as the primary problem? That, after all, is where we have failed most seriously in the past, not on the production side.
More deeply, the dominant discourse on “sustainable” intensification is centred around supply-demand type thinking, primarily hoping for price mechanisms to improve food security (more food => lower price => more food security). Indeed, prices are part of the story, but recent work on food sovereignty has impressively argued that there are very different analytical frames one can take, which lead to very different answers (see Chappell’s review paper here) — the kind of thinking dominating the existing discourse is just one analytical frame, and arguably one that puts far too much faith into markets sorting out distribution issues further down the line (see our paper highlighting three different discourses on food: production, security, sovereignty).
The notion of sustainable intensification is on the verge of being meaningless, unless some level of “sustainability” thinking is actually put back into this discourse. Focusing on production on its own, with all other issues as an afterthought, is not going to solve problems in complex food systems. If intensification is a small part of the solution — as so many authors are eager to emphasise — then we need to do better at paying more than lip service to all the other issues that are quite possibly more important for both food security and sustainability.