Sustainable intensification agriculture

Sustainable intensification of agriculture by Monica Ortiz

Grantham Scholar Monica Ortiz introduces sustainable intensification of agriculture and explains how it might to help feed a growing population.

What is sustainable intensification?

Grantham Scholar Monica Ortiz.

As a first year PhD student, much of my time is spent reading scientific literature on food security and agriculture. And a common message across these papers is that business as usual isn’t an option if we are to feed our growing population.

We need to intensify agriculture, albeit in a way that does not cause further harm to our environment and its resources. This concept is called sustainable intensification. It has been adopted by many agencies, including the FAO.

What does sustainably intensified agriculture look like?

Sustainable intensification in agriculture by the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) and University of Oxford says that it is still not clear what sustainable intensification will look like on the ground.

Also, the report notes that given different demand trajectories, trade-offs will arise and need to be balanced. Clearly, agriculture intensified to meet our needs may differ amongst production systems and in different places.

It is with this in mind that I picked Recent patterns of crop yield growth and stagnation to discuss at Journal Club.

Recent patterns of crop yield growth and stagnation

Rice is one of the 4 most important crops for humans. Photo by Monica Ortiz.

The article states that overall, historically, yields have improved in most crop production areas. However, between 1985-2005, global crop production increased by only 28%. This is based on 2.5 million census observations using high-resolution geospatial databases.

In addition, yields have either never improved, are stagnating, or have collapsed in about a third (24-39%) of areas planted with maize, rice, wheat and soybeans. These are the 4 most important crops for human consumption.

Where should sustainable intensification happen?

Findings like these raise questions for sustainable intensification of agriculture. Which crops and which geographic regions offer the best hope of meeting projected demands? Where should we be doing sustainable intensification in the first place?

I posed these questions to the Grantham Scholars. And I added a hypothetical scenario that we were providing scientific advice to funders of agricultural intensification.

We looked at areas where a) yields are still improving, b) yields are stagnating (they peaked then plateaued), c) yields are declining, or d) yields have never improved. The caveat was they could only support one of the choices.

This led to a lively discussion with interesting perspectives.

Stagnant yields

Some found it interesting that there are areas that have not experienced any improvement in yields since the 1960s. Of course, areas where yields never improved might be severely limited by their biophysical capacity to support agriculture in the first place. Additionally, there may be reasons connected to the political climate of areas, which may have interfered with stable production.

Investing in areas where yields were still increasing could mean that there is some assurance of good yields, because this means that there is a ‘track record’ for good production.

Collapsed yields

Others said that they would support investment and research in areas where yields collapsed. Supporting agriculture in these places could bring more stability of food production precisely where it is needed.

However, many Scholars also felt that where yields were stagnant there might already be the resources, infrastructure and potential to have high yields.

Conclusions on sustainable intensification

In the end, we did not reach a firm consensus (although there was a lean towards stagnating yields).

However, we did agree with the paper’s conclusion that considerable investment in agriculture is needed in the coming decades to meet the growing demand for food while simultaneously maintaining a liveable environment. The FCRN-Oxford report concludes with an important statement: sustainable intensification as a concept should be decoupled from production targets.

As many Scholars pointed out, we do produce enough food and in fact waste a lot of it. Sustainable intensification should be about optimising productivity instead of production.

So instead perhaps, the question should be: where should we not be doing sustainable intensification?

Journal Club is meet up of Grantham Scholars to discuss publications from a multidisciplinary perspective. It is part of the Grantham Scholar training programme.

Edited by Claire Moran. Photo by Tomas Anunziata from Pexels.