Food Tank spoke with Dr. Brian Petersen, co-author of a paper that examined expert views on sustainable intensification. Some environmental and agriculture scientists propose sustainable intensification as a potential solution to improving or maintaining agricultural productivity while minimizing harmful effects of agriculture on the natural environment.
The overall message: The biological and intensification components of sustainable intensification remain unclear to experts in the field, and the authors found that the term is not based on theory. Alternative concepts such as ecological intensification, which have a more theoretical basis, may be more useful.
The research: The authors interviewed 30 experts in fields related to sustainable intensification, examining their perceptions and definitions of the term. The research investigated whether experts believed that sustainable intensification represented a departure from business-as-usual agriculture or incremental improvements in the efficient use of land and natural resources.
Food Tank (FT): What are two key points of your paper? Why is your research relevant for the transition to sustainable agriculture?
Dr. Brian Petersen (BP): Through this paper, we hoped to discover a better way to understand agriculture and achieve environmental, economic, and social outcomes in the twenty-first century. The first key point of our paper is that sustainable intensification has become a buzzword. It’s amorphous. There’s nothing about it that’s rigorous or defined—it just allows anyone to latch onto it and promote any kind of agriculture they want, essentially putting a positive spin on what’s really unsustainable agriculture. And that’s quite dangerous. Certainly in African agriculture, there’s been a lot of attention, and more importantly, a lot of money, put towards sustainable intensification.
Second, there are a lot of experts who believe that our current paradigm of agriculture is not well suited to the challenges of the twenty-first century. Experts are saying that agroecology might be more suitable, not only for producing sufficient food, but also for providing resilience in the face of climate change and meeting local needs to actually feed people.
FT: How might the term “ecological intensification” differ from “sustainable intensification” and overcome political barriers to achieve greater success in implementation?
BP: In the paper, we used ecological intensification to showcase the inability of sustainable intensification to back up its claims with scientific theory. With sustainable intensification, there’s no requirement to verify whether a change is taking place or making a real difference; monoculture corn with intensive inputs is still “sustainable intensification” to some people. Ecological intensification is much narrower, and assesses empirically whether biological approaches can replace chemical and human-derived inputs to achieve similar outputs. Ecological approaches such as intercropping and the use of non-synthetic fertilizers can be implemented and compared to business-as-usual agriculture to observe the actual ecological differences.
FT: In the paper, you conclude that shifting to ecological intensification would require political and economic support. How would you envision this support and would it differ from conventional agricultural safety nets?
BP: It would have to! In order for this to change, there would need to be a complete paradigm shift in how agriculture is viewed and funded. Many stakeholders would end up losing if there were a shift away from business-as-usual agriculture, which is a major barrier to implementation of ecological intensification. Many of the experts believe that a complete shift in paradigm will require a tremendous amount of public support, not only from the populations of different countries, but also from governments. They believe that subsidies and tax incentives currently benefit wealthy corporations profiting off of sustainable intensification or conventional agriculture. If we don’t shift public support toward more ecological agriculture, it’s going to have catastrophic consequences, in my view and in the view of the scientists we interviewed.
FT: Private sector investment in conventional intensification research, such as plant breeding, has historically exceeded public sector investment by a factor of two or more. How might sustainable intensification or ecological intensification appeal to the private sector in obtaining funding for biological research and development of relevant technologies?
BP: It’s hard to know how the private sector can benefit in similar ways from ecological intensification; it’s not at all clear from the literature, and the people we interviewed had differing opinions. Many experts argued that if we continue to rely on the private sector to intensify agriculture, we’re going to have the same problems, because the private sector is not well equipped to promote something as varied and localized as agroecology. On the other hand, we also interviewed people from large agribusinesses whose views of sustainable intensification and the role of the private sector were more positive.
Part of the reason that sustainable intensification has been so popular, in the literature and the media, is that it doesn’t actually require any changes in our agricultural system. The people who are benefiting from the current system will continue to benefit in the future. And it’s not just the private sector—academia has not been well suited to address this change, because institutions have been integrated into this worldview and are not providing a counterforce in the discussion.
FT: And how could future research on ecological intensification contribute to these discussions of a global shift?
BP: Initial research should focus on places that may be utilizing ecological intensification. How are they performing? To what extent are they benefiting from having a different approach to agriculture? How are they faring in the markets, and are they actually meeting local needs? Are they actually reducing negative environmental consequences? From there, we can think about how ecological intensification would look if it were scaled up. Based on case studies, we could examine the necessary public policies and financial resources that might allow agroecology to flourish, and to see how they may vary by region.
FT: You have spoken with 30 agricultural experts from many intersecting food-related fields. What’s your perception of the future of food from your conversations with these experts? Are you optimistic about the possibilities for intensification?
BP: The people who support sustainable intensification were very optimistic because they’re embedded in a system that they support and think is beneficial. However, the vast majority of experts had a starkly different view. They were very concerned that sustainable intensification is no different than the current system, and that funding will come at the expense of truly sustainable practices. They were also very concerned with the fact that we currently grow enough food for 10 billion people, yet we fail to adequately feed 4 billion people today. If the current barriers to food access and local sovereignty persist, then it doesn’t even matter what type of food production paradigm is used, so that was very disheartening for some.
In my own view, I’m somewhat pessimistic in the short term due to the difficulty of overcoming the power of inertia, but in the long term, I do think that the emerging alternative food movement is very exciting and could coalesce into a global movement that really could reshape the way we think about agriculture.