Making sense of sustainable agricultural intensification

How can we produce more food without depleting finite natural resources? This question was discussed during a side event at the UN Rio+20 Conference in June. Photo: N. Palmer (CIAT).

By Cecilia Schubert

Agriculture generates at least twice as much poverty reduction than any other sector. In addition, it engages about 40 percent of the world’s population. With this in mind, agriculture must be viewed as key for economic growth, food security, poverty reduction and environmental sustainability. Agriculture has huge potential in contributing to the solution to food insecurity and powerlessness, instead of only be viewed as part of the problem. But part of the problem, it is. This we can't deny.

As world food demand increases, so too does demand for farmland. Agricultural expansion threatens valuable forests and biodiversity, contributing to climate change and destroying precious ecosystems. Is sustainable agricultural intensification the silver-bullet solution then to this enormous challenge?

This emerging issue was discussed during the Food Security Main event at the Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development, held alongside the recent Rio+20 conference.

Intensification is a long-term project

How can agriculture be sustainably intensified? Tim Benton, Professor in Population Ecology at the University of Leeds, pointed out that intensification is not only about  technical solutions or industrialization. It is about increasing growing yields per area. In other words, it is producing more, while minimizing the impact on the environment. It must be viewed as a journey and not something that can be implemented tomorrow, he said. Organic farming is one part of the solution, but it is not the entire solution, he emphasised. Technical interventions including new crop varieties; valuing ecosystem services; use of best practices based on context, management of landscapes and soils are some of the solutions to how to transform the agricultural sector into a more sustainable and intensified production system.

An innovative idea that Benton laid forward was to address intensification across multiple spatial scales. This means intensifying within one area, but sparing more land somewhere else for the conservation of biodiversity and ecological systems.  This can be done within one country, or between countries. There is thus a trade-off between land used for production and the preservation of different ecosystem services that are needed to obtain a good yield such as pollination for instance.

Getting policymakers on board is essential

But the challenge is still how do we ensure that politicians understand what needs to be done? And how do we communicate research to politicians without over-simplifying it? “This is a challenge we need to take” Commissioner Adrian Fernandez said, “ensuring that politicians understand our research”. Mr Fernandez presented the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change’s seven key recommendations on how to achieve food security in the context of climate change and a growing population. The recommendations were included in a Summary for Policy makers – ensuring that the research is communicated as key action messages, ready to be included into government’s policies. View and read more about of the recommendations here.

Dr. Fernandez concluded his presentation by saying that, business as usual will not bring food security and environmental sustainability. Instead we have to change the way we view agriculture. Agriculture is part of the solution that can help us create a food secure future, with greater prospects for farmers to enhance livelihoods. But there are still challenges left that need to be further investigated. He emphasized that we must not forget the sustainability aspect within sustainable intensification; it is key in order for agriculture to be part of the solution. 

The CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) was covering the Rio+20 Conference live between 12 - 22 June. Read the latest stories related to agriculture and food security from the conference. To get the latest updates follow both CCAFS on Facebook and Twitter and Agriculture DayFacebook and Twitter. Join the conversation about agriculture and food security at Rio+20 using #Rio4ag on Twitter.

Cecliia Schubert is a communications assistant at the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS).