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Sustainable intensification in agriculture: premises and policies

At the Parallel Forum meeting in January 2015, one of the groups used a Policy Forum article recommended by one of the Forum's witnesses, Professor Charles Godfray, as a starting point to discuss some of the premises underlying sustainable intensification and how these relate to food-system priorities.

Charles Godfray’s paper responds to the increasing concerns of future global food insecurity given the complex nature of the challenge. By succinctly laying down the ‘logics of agricultural intensification’ both on the large and small farms, in the developed and the developing nations and the conditions for achieving it sustainably – it rebuts the charge that ‘sustainable intensification’ is an oxymoronic term and endeavour.

The group however felt, and which links with the concerns raised by other witness papers – that there is a danger, however, if we uncritically accept the popular narrative about ‘food insecurity’ based on the various statistics that almost seems like a truism. If we do so, we lend ourselves to believing that the solution lies in ‘producing more to feed more’ when the problem could be more complex and inter-related with other social and environmental domains. In addition, the question arises producing more of what and where and in doing so, are we irreverently alienating certain groups in certain societies. If that is the case, can such food from such processes and outcomes that find their way in our super-markets and into our kitchen fall within the ambit of ‘sustainable practices’?

Some of the other themes, which emerged, were the unattended area of food waste and loss of food at the various levels of the value chain - both in the advanced, and the developing economies. Additionally, the food fetish of increasing the variety on the shelves of the same item in response to the ‘needs of the consumers’, and then subsequent wastage without proper recycling essentially leads to producers and consumers incurring double costs  – of having to produce more, and then later to trash even more, both at the supermarket and household level. Many of the food we consume or waste has a transnational carbon footprint, and it is not an issue that can be viewed as ‘not in our backyard problem’.

Some of the questions therefore,  in view of this growing narrative about food security that warrant consideration and further work: are we clear in terms how the local or the micro-level needs and issues of ‘sustainable intensification’ link with the concerns at the global, macro level? Can we think of developing contextualised strategies for each level, which is affordable, accessible and inclusive? Farmers – whether large or small, from developed and many food insecure developing nations who are largely implicated in this intensification debate respond to any seeming crisis based on the available ‘tools in the tool box’. Therefore, can we think of increasing such tools for the farmers in their toolbox, through research and development; and/or by collating and sharing best either practices or solutions available in different parts of the globe? What about rethinking the way agriculture research and development agenda is shaped and money spent. Can there be a way where institutions that are interested in addressing this growing global challenge work in a synergy instead of duplicating or nullifying efforts? After all, there are enough evidences to suggest that concerns of food, energy, health, water and biodiversity are different ends of the same spectrum. Moreover, can we think of doing scenario modelling that can give us indication of how pressure on production of certain kind of input-intensive food can be reduced; if certain percentages of the population were to turn complete or sparingly vegetarian?  Based on some of the findings if we can get governments to encourage such change in consumption behaviour through awareness and education?.

The crux is, it time for action, without waiting for the perfect answers and solutions. Some of the problems are structural, while others behavioural. What is needed is to begin doing what is possible at various levels. More than money, it is the will to change and work collaboratively and inter-disciplinarily towards addressing this common global problem.

Some of the common themes:

  • Addressal of value-chain losses of food
  • Behaviour change not just in terms of healthy diet, but also how much we procure, consume and waste.
  • Agriculture research and development agenda for increasing ‘tools in the tool box’ of farmers, for practicing sustainable agriculture.
  • Documentation and sharing of best practices and up-scaling existing solutions
  • Creating new or supporting existing institutions for support and governance


T. Garnett, M. C. Appleby, A. Balmford, I. J. Bateman, T. G. Benton, P. Bloomer, B. Burlingame, M. Dawkins, L. Dolan, D. Fraser, M. Herrero, I. Hoffmann, P. Smith, P. K. Thornton, C. Toulmin, S. J. Vermeulen, H. and C. J. Godfray (2013) Sustainable Intensification in Agriculture: Premises and Policies. Science, 341, 33-34


Regina is a PhD student in the Department of Geography, and her research focused on gender, agriculture and food security.

Find out more about her work

As a starting point, the Parallel Forum used this Policy Forum article in Science recommended Charles Godfray which calls for a clearer understanding is needed of the premises underlying sustainable intensification and how it relates to food-system priorities.

Download the paper