November 8, 2012

Navigating Food System Priorities: Sustainable Intensification

One of the critical questions facing the agricultural development community today, is how can agricultural systems continue to produce adequate food for the human population, while reducing harmful impacts on the environment and confronting climate change. Examining one proposed solution – “sustainable intensification” – the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN), recently released the report  Sustainable intensification in agriculture: Navigating a course through competing food system priorities, aimed at informing policy makers working in areas relevant to food security. Hosted through the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food, the Network is a collaborative effort exploring the role that government, the business community, non-governmental organisations and individuals could play in tackling food related emissions, within the broader social, ethical, and environmental context. 

A workshop held early in the year brought together thought leaders from a range of disciplines in the academic and policy spheres to contemplate the meanings, issues, and challenges surrounding sustainable intensification. While environmental sustainability, animal welfare, and human wellbeing were the topics of particular concern, the language of integration and scales seems to have pervaded the discussion. Even from the start of the report, authors Tara Garnett and Charles Godfray argue that sustainable intensification – obtaining greater yield while reducing environmental impact – alone is not an answer to achieving food security and must be part of a larger strategy involving good governance, reduced food loss and waste, and social changes.

This report builds the case for a more systems-oriented approach to agricultural decision making. It argues that for agricultural policy to help rather than hinder the ultimate goal of food security, a cross-sectoral approach, integrating across environmental, animal welfare, and health policies, is necessary. Moving forward, they suggest deepening the current understanding of systems interactions – including the relationships between the environment, human health, ethics and livelihoods. Furthermore, in order to ensure sustainability over both space and time, the report authors emphasize the need for indicators of sustainability that also account for temporal and spatial scales.

There has been considerable controversy over what sustainable intensification even actually means. What principles should it promote, and where does it fit into the broader discourse around food security, agriculture, and the environment?

Read the summary of the report and access the full version online.

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