April 18, 2013

Sustainable Agricultural Intensification: A Practical Solution for the Global Development Agenda

By Sir Gordon Conway
Professor of International Development, Agriculture for Impact, Imperial College London
This originally appeared on Huffington Post.

Hunger, malnutrition, poverty, climate change, environmental degradation - addressing these injustices is at the forefront of political meetings the world over. Yet these problems persist as global leaders strive to find efficient and synergistic ways of tackling them sustainably.

In Africa alone over 200 million people are chronically hungry and 40% of children under the age of 5 are stunted. At the same time, the African population is still rapidly growing and experiencing serious declines in its agricultural resource base with present food production systems only expected to be able to meet 13% of the continent's food needs by 2050.

Meeting the challenge of this "post-2015" development agenda - so-called because it will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) once they expire in 2015 - requires new solutions to addressing food insecurity, resource scarcity and at-risk rural livelihoods.

One such solution is Sustainable Intensification.

Sustainable Intensification as a new development paradigm

The phrase "Sustainable Intensification" was originally coined as a technical term, but it has become highly politicised more recently by various groups and is often incorrectly associated only with high-input, industrial agriculture.

However, a new report Sustainable Intensification: A New Paradigm for African Agriculture, authored by the Montpellier Panel of which I chair, aims to revisit the original intent of Sustainable Intensification and explain how it can be used by many types of farms, even smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

First coined by Jules Pretty and brought to prominence in a 2009 Royal Society Report and more recently in the FAO's Save and Grow Report, Sustainable Intensification can be simply defined as "producing more outputs with more efficient use of all inputs - on a durable basis - while reducing environmental damage and building resilience, natural capital and the flow of environmental services."

A group of international experts from the fields of agriculture, sustainable development, trade and policy, the Montpellier Panel draws on past lessons to inform its views in the report and highlights promising new methods for producing more food with less impact on the environment, intensifying food production while ensuring the natural resource base on which agriculture depends is sustained, and indeed improved, for future generations.

Technical approaches to Sustainable Intensification

At this critical time when a new generation of Development Goals are being considered, agricultural development as a pathway to poverty and hunger reduction is understandably high on the political agenda. Ensuring these targets are relevant to smallholder African farmers is essential as they produce the majority of the continent's food and also comprise a majority of the people suffering from chronic hunger.

Defining Sustainable Intensification and its practical implementation is critical for delineating future goals as well as ensuring a pathway of intensification is not damaging in the long term, especially since many experts are calling increased agricultural productivity to be a explicit goal of the post-2015 agenda.

Sustainable Intensification not only addresses the negative environmental impacts of historical agricultural intensifications (notably the Green Revolution) but acknowledges the scarcities in resources the world faces today.

In short, the outputs of intensification need to be defined not only in terms of crop yields but also to include metrics which acknowledge agriculture's potential to tackle poverty and undernutrition. It also requires a broader understanding of the types of inputs which can be used to boost productivity, namely ecological intensification, genetic intensification and socio-economic intensification.

The report details both ecological and crop breeding solutions to Africa's worrying rates of malnutrition. For example, home gardens, whereby a diversity of crops are grown around the home, can increase the variety of nutrients in a household's diets.

Similarly, orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, which have been bred from conventional sweet potatoes to have higher levels of beta-carotene (the pre-cursor of vitamin A) have already reduced malnutrition in Mozambique and Uganda, where this micronutrient was often lacking in the staple diet.

Yet another example is the use of Faidherbia trees, a leguminous tree which curiously sheds its leaves in the wet season, thereby providing a natural nutrient source to crops planted underneath while allowing for sunlight to pass through during the growing season. Maize yields have been boosted by the increased access to nitrogen from the leaves, which is crucial for plant growth, while at the same time decomposition of the tree's leaves into the soil sequesters carbon. It is these win-win examples Sustainable Intensification encompasses.

An enabling environment for Sustainable Intensification

But technological measures such as Faidherbia, other agroecological approaches or various forms of crop and livestock breeding are only part of the answer. They must be coupled with the development of an enabling environment conducive to the generation and adoption of Sustainable Intensification. In particular, farmers must have access to fair and efficient markets and be part of remunerative value chains. Farmers' cooperative associations can assist smallholder producers in marketing their products and receiving higher prices by helping to centralize access to credit and stocks, offering better quality of storage facilities and increasing farmers' bargaining power when selling surplus crops.

Relevant to all forms of Sustainable Intensification is science and innovation, which not only allows advances to be scaled up and out more widely, but from which new technologies to tackle novel, unpredictable and growing global challenges such as climate change will come. Support for research, development and education from the local to global level is also a must.

Sustainable Intensification as a development priority

The appeal of Sustainable Intensification should be felt by policy makers, investors and practitioners alike because of the efficiency and impact it can have. It should also appeal to smallholder farmers in Africa as well, who are struggling to feed themselves and those dependent on them.

As we look to the significant growth in agriculture and the wider economy many African countries have experienced in the past decade, a focus on Sustainable Intensification, the tools of which are often generated by farmers themselves, can not only sustain and improve food production increases but ensure such growth is positive for a range of outcomes and sustained.

The linkages between agriculture, health, poverty and well-being should be recognised within the post-2015 development agenda. Indeed Nobel Prize-winning economists agreed in the 2012 Copenhagen Consensus that nutrition combined with agricultural interventions should be the top priority investment for development impact globally.

By focusing on a goal of increasing agricultural productivity in a sustainable manner that is resilient to climate change, the post-2015 development agenda faces a real possibility of making significant progress towards eradicating the injustices we face in the world.


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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