Interest in agricultural sustainability can be traced to environmental concerns that began to appear in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly with books by Rachel Carson and Barbara Ward. However, concepts and practice of sustainability date back at least to the oldest surviving texts from China, India, Greece and Rome. Prominent Roman agricultural writers, including Cato, Varro and Columella, spoke of agriculture as having two components: agri and cultura (the fields and the culture). Cato, in the opening of Di Agri Cultura, written 2200 years ago, celebrated the high regard to which farmers were held: “when our ancestors . . . would praise a worthy man their praise took this form: ‘good husbandman,’ ‘good farmer;’ one so praised was thought to have received the greatest commendation.” He also wrote about longevity: “a good piece of land will please you more at each visit.”
My 2002 book, Agri-Culture, focuses on how food-producing agroecosystems are embedded in cultures and almost always work most sustainably and productively at the landscape and community level. This suggests two important principles: i) working collaboratively to amend both domesticated and wild resources; and ii) making use of and contributing to environmental services whilst producing food.
For as long as there has been management of natural resources, there has been collective action. Farming households have collaborated on water management, labour sharing and marketing; pastoralists have co-managed rangelands; and fishing families have jointly managed aquatic resources. Such collaboration has been institutionalized in many local associations, through clan or kin groups, water users’ groups, grazing management societies, women’s self-help groups, youth clubs, farmer experimentation groups, forest associations and labour-exchange societies.
Through such groups, constructive resource management rules and norms have been embedded in many cultures—from collective water management in Egypt, Mesopotamia and Indonesia to herders of the Andes and drylands of Africa; from water harvesting in Roman North Africa and south-west North America to shifting agriculture systems in the forests of Asia and Africa; and from common fields of Europe to the iriaichi in Japan. It has been rare, prior to the last decade or so, for the importance of these local institutions to be recognized in agricultural and rural development. In both developing and industrialized countries, policy and practice have tended to be preoccupied with changing the behaviour of individuals rather than of groups or communities. The recent emergence of farmer field schools, credit groups, irrigation associations, watershed management groups and joint forest management groups has resulted in remarkable shifts in productivity and sustainability in many countries. They are, though, much more common in developing than industrialised countries.
Agricultural systems are amended ecosystems with a variety of properties. Modern agricultural systems have made some of these changes to increase productivity. Sustainable agroecosystems, by contrast, seek to shift some of these properties towards natural systems without significantly trading off productivity. Modern agroecosystems have tended towards high through-flow systems, with energy supplied by fossil fuels directed out of the system. For a transition to sustainability, renewable sources of energy need to be maximised, and some energy flows directed towards internal trophic interactions so as to maintain other ecosystem functions. These properties suggest a role for agroecological design of systems and landscapes to produce both food and environmental assets.
The desire for agriculture to produce more food without environmental harm, or even positive contributions to natural and social capital, has been reflected in calls for a wide range of different types of more sustainable agriculture: for a ‘doubly green revolution,’ for ‘alternative agriculture,’ for an ‘evergreen revolution,’ for ‘agroecological intensification,’ for ‘green food systems,’ for ‘greener revolutions’ and ‘evergreen agriculture.’ These terms all centre on the proposition that agricultural and uncultivated systems should no longer be conceived of as separate.
Conventional thinking about agricultural sustainability has often assumed a net reduction in input use, thus making such systems essentially extensive (requiring more land to produce the same amount of food). Recent evidence shows that successful agricultural sustainability initiatives and projects arise from shifts in the factors of agricultural production (e.g. from use of chemical fertilizers to nitrogen-fixing legumes; from pesticides to an emphasis on natural predators; from ploughing to zero-tillage). A better concept than extensive is one that centres on intensification of resources, making better use of existing resources (e.g. land, water, biodiversity) and technologies.
Until recently, ‘intensification’ was synonymous for a type of agriculture that inevitably caused harm whilst producing food. Equally, ‘sustainable’ was seen as a term to be applied to all that could be good about agriculture. The combination of the terms was an attempt to indicate that desirable ends (more food, better environment) could be achieved by a variety of means. Sustainable intensification was further popularized by its use in a number of key reports: Reaping the Benefits by the Royal Society, The Future of Food and Farming by UK Foresight and Save and Grow by the FAO.
Sustainable intensification is defined as a process or system where yields are increased without adverse environmental impacts and without the cultivation of more land. The concept is thus relatively open, in that it does not articulate or privilege any particular vision of agricultural production. It emphasises ends rather than means, and does not predetermine technologies, species mix or particular design components. Sustainable intensification can be distinguished from former conceptions of ‘agricultural intensification’ as a result of its explicit emphasis on a wider set of drivers, priorities and goals than solely enhancement of productivity.
Despite great progress and the emergence of the term sustainable intensification and all its components, there is much to be done to ensure that agricultural systems worldwide increase productivity fast enough to feed a growing population, whilst ensuring impacts on natural and social capital are positive. Integrating these new approaches into the existing agri and culture of today’s global food system landscape presents both challenging and exciting opportunities.
Photo: Jules Pretty