May 15, 2014

Commentary - Sustainable intensification: a single solution for a double challenge

By Professor Sir Gordon Conway
Sir Gordon Conway is Professor of International Development in the Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London and Director of Agriculture for Impact. 

Our planet faces an urgent, double challenge. First – around 827 million people in the world are still going hungry.

Second, climate change is happening now. Ask any smallholder farmer and they will tell you that the rains are unpredictable. Sometimes they are too short, or they don’t come at all. Sometimes too long, or too harsh and floods ruin a harvest.

In Western Kenya, near Kisumu, One Acre Fund farmer Timothy Okoth lost much of his crop last year due to drought. The six bags of maize he produced simply were not enough for him and his family to have enough to eat. For all of us, yields of maize, rice, wheat and soybeans all need to increase by 60% by 2050 to meet future demand. 

Knowing when to plant used to be common knowledge, now it’s anyone’s guess. Failing to plant and germinate seed just before the rainy season begins can have profound consequences on a farmer’s yield and their family’s food security.

Over the next 40 years 265 million people will face a 5% decrease in their growing season. When the rains just don’t come at all, other back-up strategies are needed. It can mean the difference between three square meals a day or none at all.

Build resilience, sustainably

Building resilience to shocks and stresses caused by higher temperatures or erratic rainfall patterns for crops, livestock and people is one solution. How to build this resilience leaves some room for debate, but let me offer a way forward: sustainable intensification.

In essence, sustainable intensification is about increasing agricultural productivity (producing more food) while decreasing agriculture’s environmental footprint (reducing greenhouse gas emissions). Doing this requires stopping the expansion of land and cutting the wasteful use of inputs. Better targeting and encouragement for more prudent and efficient use of inputs, be they water, fertilizers or pesticides can raise yields, reduce emissions and improve farmer profits.

Intensification and intensifying sustainably can and should take many forms. These “wins” or benefits cannot be achieved without going through multiple pathways. Whether these challenges are approached through agro-ecology (e.g. inter-cropping or integrated pest management), genetics (hybrid seeds or biofortified crop varieties) or socio-economics (building human and social capital), each has a role to play in adaptation as well as mitigation.

Sustainable Intensification must be climate-smart

The term ‘climate-smart agriculture’, which defines practices that sustainably boost productivity whilst adapting to and mitigating climate change, goes hand in glove with sustainable intensification. The growing volatility of weather patterns and the growing scarcity of natural resources mean that sustainable intensification, which urges the preservation and enhancement of natural capital alongside a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions originating from agriculture, is not only a necessary pathway but an urgent one.

The reality is that we are running out of good-quality arable land and water. Shorter growing seasons and higher temperatures are affecting farmers now. In order to reduce hunger and poverty and stay ahead of the curve, farmers must intensify their production on the same amount of land or less; with the same amount of water or less; and with more prudent use of fertilizer.  The results too must be more nutritious -- combating malnutrition is instrumental to improving productivity and learning new climate-smart farming practices.

With agriculture responsible for around 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions, farmers must be supported to both adapt to climate change and to partake in reducing emissions. This demands a focus by donors, governments and farmers on investments (financial and physical) into climate-smart agriculture.

Climate change and food security are challenges that are inextricably linked. Sustainable intensification is a way forward that will help farmers face both.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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| By Roger Thurow

Our New Gordian Knot

Fifty years ago Dr. Norman Borlaug recieved the Nobel Peace Prize for cutting the "Goridan knot" of population and food production. Now the planet faces another seemingly intractable problem: how to nourish the planet while preserving the planet.