August 25, 2014

LIBERATION: A Knowledge Platform for Ecological Intensification

A farmer cultivates his rice using an “alternate wetting and drying” technique

A farmer cultivates his rice using an “alternate wetting and drying” technique

Elise Ursin, EcoAgriculture Partners

As it becomes increasingly clear that industrial agriculture is not sustainable, the current search for alternatives may very well define the future of food. Though academics, policy makers, and civil society organizations have produced an impressive amount of research on sustainable farming and ecosystems, these approaches still remain relatively underutilized in the context of the modernized, globalized food system. This knowledge gap was the impetus for a project called “LIBERATION”: LInking farmland Biodiversity to Ecosystem seRvices for effective ecofunctional intensificATION. Funded by the EU, LIBERATION was launched in collaboration with the Platform for Agrobiodiversity Research (PAR) in April 2014 as a knowledge platform to build an evidence-based case for agricultural intensification. Some of its goals include defining emerging concepts in the food security debate, identifying best practices, and encouraging further research on ecofunctional intensification.

But what exactly is “ecofunctional intensification,” and how is it different from similar concepts surfacing in the food security debate? LIBERATION’s main web forum, the “Community of Practice of Ecological Intensification,” created in collaboration with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), drives this and other vital discussions among participants:

  1. Discussion on intensification
  2. Discussion on application of intensification
  3. Discussion on sustainable vs. ecological vs. ecofunctional intensification
  4. Discussion on benefits of ecological intensification
  5. Discussion on land sharing vs. land sparing

Even though the conversation on ecological intensification is far from over, participants generally agree that it refers to reducing the use of external inputs to maximize agricultural productivity, while reducing negative impacts to the ecosystem. Largely based on agroecological science, this concept emphasizes improving efficiency of production via natural processes and knowledge-intensive practices. Unlike other terms—such as “sustainable intensification”—it implies large scale reform to global agriculture rather than the appropriation of some sustainable techniques to the existing production system.

Take rice as an example: heavily irrigated rice systems make up 75% of rice production worldwide and provide a staple food for billions of people. Though rice cultivation has existed for millennia, these systems are only recently being threatened due to overuse of agricultural inputs and water scarcity. However, water-saving techniques like alternate wetting and drying, dry seeding, and cultivation of rice in non-flooded soil offer some solutions. These approaches dramatically reduce the demand for water and allow the growth of rice in areas where it is normally impossible. Landscape management, in particular, offers the opportunity for farmers to better plan and integrate aspects of the environment for improved resilience and efficient water use. These techniques represent only a few examples of what shape ecological intensification could take in rice-production systems, but they all demonstrate an ability to maintain—or increase—yields, while reducing total inputs and reducing negative impacts on the environment.

While the discussions on LIBERATION’s forums have not led to a consensus on their respective topics, a number of interesting points have been brought to light. For example, on the nature of “intensification,” participants pondered an “action” vs. “output” approach to defining sustainable intensification. Likewise, they agreed that in regard to the “application of intensification,” a wide variety of stakeholders stand to benefit but exactly who/how is unclear. While the time for most of the discussions has elapsed, the fifth forum on “land sharing vs. land sparing” has yet to begin. Because this question is attracting attention and is of great importance to agricultural intensification, this forum will open when the moderators have ensured a large number of participants. Everyone is encouraged to take part (to register in the LIBERATION forum, click here)!

Photo: IRRI Photos on Flickr
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