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Woman farmer Mali, Africa

A woman farmer works together with another woman as she plows her field in the country region of Mali, Africa. Image: Ray Witlin/World Bank

(WNN/IRIN) London, England, UNITED KINGDOM, WESTERN EUROPE: Spikes in food prices and extreme climatic events have threatened global food security in recent years, raising concerns about humanity’s ability to feed its growing population. These fears prompted scientists from the Royal Society to propose in 2009 the ‘sustainable intensification’ (SI) of agriculture. The term which by most definitions means increasing yields with minimum damage to the environment and without drawing more land under production is not new, but it has attracted a great deal of controversy.

This is because various stakeholders – agriculture-based corporations, aid agencies, academics, activists and civil society organizations – assumed SI would employ certain kinds of production systems to increase crop yields. Some civil society organizations argued corporations and certain aid agencies would use the push for SI to promote the use of genetically modified (GM) crops and chemical fertilizers, for example.

A new paper published in Science magazine attempts to clarify and, to some degree, depoliticize the ideas behind SI.  SI is part of “a multi-pronged strategy to achieving sustainable food security rather than an all-encompassing solution,” the authors write. Lead author Tara Garnett, of the Food Climate Research Network at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, told WNN news partner IRIN (UN humanitarian news and analysis) they deliberately chose not to specify the agricultural techniques or technologies that should be adopted to achieve higher yields, an effort to prevent the claim that SI promotes GM.

The paper argues that food system sustainability will require waste reduction and improved governance, as well as increased food accessibility and affordability. It must also manage demand for meat and dairy products, which are resource-intensive.


The paper has not won over SI’s staunchest opponents.

One of the harshest critics of SI is the NGO Friends of the Earth International (FOEI), which published “A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing? An analysis of the ‘sustainable intensification’ of agriculture” in 2012.

The report examined the power and politics “that drive the academic and science agenda on agriculture, including the politics behind the use of the term SI,” explained co-author Kirtana Chandrasekaran, who is also the coordinator of FOEI’s Food Sovereignty Programme.

Chandrasekaran told IRIN  by email that there are flaws in the conclusions of the Science paper. She suggested three edits: “The first conclusion is flawed – the goal of intensification is context… and [is] not an end in itself, whereas sustainability is ultimately a non-negotiable, wherever and whenever. So it should be prioritized.

“The second conclusion should acknowledge what the paper has [acknowledged]- that the term has also been misused and, in some cases abused. Additionally [it should reflect] an assessment of the role of the whole supply chain and how business as usual should not continue to be promoted through SI.”

A 2008 UN-sponsored study called the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) provided a way forward on improving food production through agricultural science and technology. This study has been ignored and should have been given prominence, she added.

“Looking at the institutions and projects that are being justified by SI, as we outline in our report, gives a hint why. Most of the projects are business-as-usual industrial agriculture. And one of the key differences between, for example, the Royal Society report that re-ignited the term SI and the IAASTD is that the Royal Society is not critical of GM crops whereas the IAASTD was clear that GM has little role to play in feeding the world, simply because it is not effective, not appropriate for small farmers and risky.”

Uma Lele, who co-authored Transforming Agricultural Research for Development (AR4D), a concept paper that advocated SI, was also critical of the Science article, saying it was “too vague and general”.

“There is no mention of where in the world consumption patterns will have to change and how that will be achieved… and all have a tendency to coin new phrases without explaining fully what is the difference between them,” Lele said.


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