Thursday, 8 January 2015

Sustainable intensification of agriculture: an oxymoron?

Today, the Arthur Rank Centre project 'RuSource' highlighted a report from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council:

Researching the sustainable intensification of agriculture
This report presents the findings of a Working Group established by BBSRC’s Food Security Strategy Advisory Panel to advise on the Council’s role in relation to the sustainable intensification (SI) of agriculture: sustainably increasing the production of food (or other agricultural products), combined with improved resource use efficiency and better environmental (and social and economic) outcomes(including animal welfare). The full report is at: 


Looking at the BBSRC's own introduction, the arguments for 'SI' appear very solid:

The purpose of this "sustainable intensification" priority is to support outcome-oriented research to enhance the production of food or non-food products with improved resource use efficiency and better environmental outcomes. It aims to address the need for agriculture to produce more from the same or a smaller area of cultivated land, and with reduced inputs of water, energy and nutrients, while minimising adverse environmental impacts on biodiversity, soil, water or the atmosphere.

This priority should be read alongside the other 'Agriculture and food security' priorities: Animal health, Food, nutrition and health, and Reducing waste in the food chain. The achievement of food and nutritional security depends on the management of demand as well as supply. The sustainable intensification of agricultural production should not be considered in isolation from the use (and waste) of food, or the effects on health of under- or (increasingly) over-nutrition: sustainable production, sustainable consumption and sustainable nutrition need to be viewed together as part of an overall picture.

Sustainably enhancing agricultural production - BBSRC
BBSRC - Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) - Home

This is very much in the light of concerns for the future use of basic scarce resources:
Futures Forum: The Water, Energy and Food Nexus
Futures Forum: Peak oil, peak soil, peak water... peak everything

The Food and Agricultural Organisation agrees:

Sustainable Crop Production Intensification

The need to feed a growing population is a constant pressure on crop production, as is coping with
an increasingly degraded environment and uncertainties resulting from climate change - and the
need to adapt farming systems to these. Sustainable crop production intensification provides
opportunities for optimizing crop production per unit area, taking into consideration the range of
sustainability aspects including potential and/or real social, political, economic and environmental

Recent trends would indicate that the incorporation of scientific principles of ecosystem
management into farming practices can enhance crop production (yield). With a particular focus
on environmental sustainability through an ecosystem approach, sustainable crop production
intensification aims to maximize options for crop production intensification through the
management of biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Plant Production and Protection Division: Sustainable Crop Production Intensification

And plenty of other research bodies concur:
Sustainable Intensification | Future of Food
Welcome to the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food | Future of Food
Exploring sustainable intensification | International Institute for Environment and Development
Carbon Management Centre International Conference - SRUC

The problem is, however, one of semantics... 
If you call something 'sustainable', does it follow that it is necessarily 'sustainable'?
Futures Forum: Sustainable Development: a problem of definition
Futures Forum: Sustainable Development: or sustainable growth
Futures Forum: Sustainable Development: it's a controversial topic...
Futures Forum: The semantics of sustainability: 'sustainable development'... or 'sustainable growth' ... or 'sustained economic growth'... or 'development for sustainability'...

When looking at the BBSRC report in more detail, it does seem very reasonable:

The broad aims of this priority include the:
  • better countering of diseases or pests (including weeds or parasites) of crops or farmed animals
  • greater resilience of crops or farmed animals to abiotic stresses
  • more efficient and more sustainable use of resources - nutrients (fertiliser/feed/waste), water, energy – in crop or animal production
  • fuller (genetic and/or agronomic) exploitation of metabolic potential – with due regard to environmental or other impacts (including welfare of farmed animals)
  • more sustainable soil and land management – including soil health, nutrient cycles, maintenance of biodiversity etc – in the context of the wider environment
Sustainably enhancing agricultural production - BBSRC

And it is clear that we will need to reduce our use of carbon-based resources:
Futures Forum: Fossil-fuel Free Farming at Bicton: A model farm for the next generation

But the push for 'doing something about carbon emissions and climate change' seems to be acting as an excuse to make life difficult for the very people who are already using the land 'sustainably':
Futures Forum: Climate change: the great carbon offsetting scam
Futures Forum: Eco-imperialism, zero-deforestation and palm oil
Futures Forum: Saving the rainforests....... indigenous communities' and palm oil corporations' commitment to "zero-deforestation"

Moreover, the application of 'science' can have unforeseen consequences - or consequences which some would rather not foresee:
Futures Forum: Norman Borlaug and the “Green Revolution”: a centenary

'Intensification' means more inputs and demand for higher yields - and yet better outcomes can be achieved without any such 'intensification':
Futures Forum: Sustainable food production and consumption
Futures Forum: Climate change: the role of livestock and agriculture.......... or: "Can steak save the planet?"

There have been several studies which question many of the assumptions underlying the science and approaches of those bodies promoting 'sustainable intensification'.

This is from Compassion in World Farming:

Measuring sustainability in farming is flawed
Metrics matter: 
Compassion in World Farming commissioned two independent research reports
showing that current metrics for measuring agricultural sustainability are limited and can lead to suboptimal decision making. 
Water footprints measure the amount of water used, and do not attempt to
assess or indicate the significance of this water use on the local environment or water management iii. A high water footprint for beef, for example, is not a measure of the environmental impact, which could be relatively small given that cattle use mainly rainwater in areas of high rainfall. 
Yield is another input-output based metric which measures units of product per unit of land. It is no measure of the quality of land or the impact on land availability for other purposes. Cattle and sheep use large amounts of land to produce meat and other products, but this is often marginal land which is of no potential nutritional value to people. In contrast, industrially farmed chickens are entirely dependent on high grade grain from prime arable land which could otherwise be used to feed people directly far more efficiently. New metrics are needed. To ensure that the ethical and social aspects of sustainability are delivered, metrics to measure animal welfare should be included in sustainability assessments. These can be based on the widely recognised Five Freedoms, which indicate both animal health and welfare.
Carbon Footprinting and Life Cycle Analysis are often used to assess the environmental performance of production systems. Our research identifies a number of significant limitations when these are applied to livestock systems iv. These include the reliance upon modelling and averaged data and lack of clarity about the impacts of land use change. Major issues arise from different approaches to defining the boundaries of farm systems, especially for beef and dairy. These factors can produce conflicting results, and the ranges of uncertainties can be so large as to make comparisons between intensive and extensive systems meaningless. New methodologies are needed to assess the impacts of farming on all sustainability criteria, including animal welfare.

Sustainable intensification - an oxymoron

And this is from Friends of the Earth:

Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing? An analysis of the ‘sustainable intensification’ of agriculture
Summary October 2012

The so­called sustainable intensification of agriculture has been adopted as an approach by national governments, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), agricultural research organisations, agribusinesses and high­level funders.
A definition that means ‘no technologies or techniques should be left out’
The Royal Society defined sustainable intensification as a process whereby yields are increased without adverse environmental impact and without the cultivation of more land’ but it includes a range of farming practices, from specific agro­ecological methods, to practices used in commercial agriculture, to biotechnology. This is because a key idea in the concept is that ‘no techniques or technologies should be left out.2 As nothing is excluded, organisations representing the biotechnology, fertiliser and pesticides industries, responsible for environmental destruction in the first place have all used sustainable intensification to promote their products.3
Spreading influence in policy and funding
The influence of the sustainable intensification approach can be seen in policies from the Gates Foundation to the World Economic Forum’s ‘New Vision for Agriculture’.4 It has also been incorporated into ‘climate smart agriculture’, which is being promoted by the World Bank at climate negotiations.5 Yet many of these international agencies are greenwashing conventional intensive agriculture approaches by defining them as sustainable intensification.
For example, the US Government’s Feed the Future programme defines sustainable intensification as ‘research (such as technologies and best management practices) and non­research inputs (such as fertiliser, quality seed, water, energy, market information, and others) come together with improved access to markets to increase productivity,enhance environmental sustainability, reduce risk, and encourage producers to increase investments to agricultural production’.6 Aside from ‘environmental sustainability’, this could be a definition of commercial, intensive agriculture.
Free trade and corporate agriculture: the other arm of sustainable intensification?
Sustainable intensification also promotes the integration of small farmers into commercial markets and global food chains but it is not certain that small­scale farmers will benefit from this.
Power and participation in sustainable intensification
Proponents of sustainable intensification talk about including small farmers, but Feed the Future did not include any small farmer organisations in its research forum, the CGIAR didn’t mention consulting with any farmers about  its overall research strategy, and the Gates Foundation doesn’t even have an office in Africa.38 When they are asked, small farmers don’t support the approach of sustainable intensification.
In 2010, small farmers from countries in West Africa attended citizen juries, and set out their priorities for research and agricultural development, including:
• sustainable agriculture that builds on farmers’ own expertise and knowledge, rather than seeking to replace it; 
• clear land rights, and rights for women, including agrarian reforms;
• agricultural research that starts by asking farmers what they need;
• knowledge and technologies that are based on agro­ecological principles, including compost, integrated pest management and mixed cropping; 
• seed development based on traditional varieties; and
• mechanisms to protect them from unfair competition from imported products.39
Small farmers practise sustainable agriculture 
Small farmers using traditional seed varieties without the use of industrial inputs grow most of the world’s food, especially the food that feeds the rural poor. In   Africa, peasant farmers grow almost all domestically consumed food. In Latin America, 60 per cent of agricultural production (including meat) comes from family farms.40 In Asia, almost all rice is grown on farms of less than 2 hectares.41 In fact, most of the world’s food is grown by small farmers, without the use of industrial inputs, and using traditional seed varieties.42 Sustainable   intensification characterises small farmers as having low yields, and being in need of new technologies, such as high yielding varieties. 
However, if small holders are feeding much of the world, how unproductive are they really? In fact, if total output rather than just the yield of one crop is measured, small farmers can be more productive than commercial operations. 43
Sustainable intensification is an ideology that adheres to a productivist view of feeding the world. It fails to take into account power, profit, politics and participation in the food system. As this report shows, in practise it can mean   business as usual intensive farming with slight modifications to try and tackle the growing environmental crises caused by industrial agriculture. Through its philosophy of including all possible solutions and technologies, sustainable   intensification is providing a cover for environmentally destructive practices   as well as corporate concentration of food production, inputs and distribution. Therefore the term must be used with caution.   
Before the Royal Society report made this term fashionable, the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD)   report had already provided a coherent and inclusive roadmap for solving global hunger. The IAASTD recognised the importance of participatory public research that can genuinely work for peasant farmers and for far greater funding and support for agroecological farming methods. 45
In addition to the recommendations of IAASTD, several measures can be taken   now to significantly lessen pressure on land and resources.
These measures will  also ensure more equitable distribution of resources, food and land among the global community. They include: 
• Stopping the large amounts of crops and land diverted from food to agrofuels production;
• Introducing measures to reduce high levels of consumption of livestock products in the West that are sucking up global grain supplies;
• Reducing high levels of retail and household waste in the West and post­harvest loss in the developing world;
• Providing access to land, water and other resources that is vital for communities to be able to feed themselves;
• Stopping land grabbing and instead implementing genuine agrarian reform programmes—in particular, the actions agreed at the 2006 International Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development.


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