Sustainable Intensification Revisited Discussion

As part of BSUFN’s series of reading discussion groups we have been talking about sustainable intensification. Under our special interest group (SIG) theme Primary Food Production, a group of members met to discuss the International Institute for Environment and Development‘s (IIED) recent working paper titled Sustainable Intensification Revisited (available here).

Our discussion spanned a wide range for food-production issues which encompassed issues from the whole of the global food system to local and smallholder farming in different contexts. Below are some points arising in our discussion.

  • Is ‘sustainable intensification’ a useful term? Should it be abandoned? Should it be redefined? Or is it a question of using the term in relation to increasing production in some areas while considering agriculture within the whole food system and sustainability of more than environmental processes?
  • There are various different proponents of sustainable intensification which have different perspectives on why it is necessary and how it can be achieved. There are also groups which provide critiques of the concept and have alternative views of the food system. Terms including ‘food sovereignty’ and ‘local food systems’ were discussed in relation to this.
  • Processes which are questioning industrial agriculture in the global north have parallels with food sovereignty movements in the global south. We discussed concepts of local food, slow food, grassroots and cooperative farming and processes for making farming social sustainable through local interactions and networks. Context specific responses rather than scaling-up interventions to a national, regional, or global scale.
  • Issues of inequality being a bigger issue to global food security than issues of production and quantity of food. It was suggested that food production shouldn’t be a business to profit from but something which is necessary for survival and access to food should be a human right.
  • Changing public attitudes toward local food was likened to changing attitudes about smoking and the massive lobbying from private business that have significant financial incentives in maintaining global, intensive, high-input agriculture.
  • Global food systems and large-scale farming can be good in some contexts so advocating a blanket policy of small-scale, local food production isn’t necessarily the best route. Issues regarding carbon emissions, the impact of climate change on production patterns, and the associated impacts of transporting food large distances were discussed. It was mentioned that research has shown that local, native food systems can support biodiversity and improve local human health because the environment is healthier.
  • There were a number of points about economics raised during the discussion. The IIED paper frames agriculture as having an economic purpose despite explicitly acknowledging the importance of other areas of sustainability. We questioned whether there is an adequate balance between cheap food so that people can afford it and paying the true cost of production including valuing other environmental resources required (e.g. soil, water, air, biodiversity).
  • The general theme of the various points of discussion seemed to be that practitioners, academics, policy-makers, and other associated groups/individuals should view food production as heterogeneous without subscribing one label, concept, or ‘solution’ to any one aspect of the complex and highly diverse food system.

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