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Sustainable Intensification

To feed a rapidly growing world population, farming must intensify - but do so sustainably. Unfortunately,  not everyone involved in agricultural development agrees on the first point. There is also considerable debate about the best path to farm sustainability.

What is “sustainable intensification”?

“Sustainable intensification” has become a popular term in agriculture – any search machine inquiry turns up several hundred thousand hits in English alone.

Like many an en vogue expression, widespread use can lead to diverging definitions. The Oxford Martin Programme [1] provides some useful terms of reference. It says that the “goal of sustainable intensification is to increase food production from existing farmland while minimising pressure on the environment. It is a response to the challenges of increasing demand for food from a growing global population, in a world where land, water, energy and other inputs are in short supply, overexploited and used unsustainably. Any efforts to ‘intensify’ food production must be matched by a concerted focus on making it ‘sustainable.’ Failing to do so will undermine our capacity to continue producing food in the future.” 

Oxford experts were among those who contributed to a 2013 paper in Science describing the “Premises and Policies” of sustainable intensification [2].


Five criteria form a good starting point

One way of judging what is “sustainable intensive agriculture”, is to see how far a particular farming system satisfies five criteria. (The Syngenta Foundation did not invent these criteria – they appear, for example, in the 1990 US Farm Bill – but we view them as an excellent starting point worldwide):

1. Satisfies human food and fiber needs
Our Foundation sees an important difference between farming systems that seek to meet crop needs by embracing yield-raising technology, and those that pursue “extensification”, i.e. the use of greater field areas to compensate for lack (or rejection) of such tools. 

2. Enhances environmental quality and the natural resource base
Meeting the second criterion can include farming practices such as reduced tillage. (Many experts believe that less plowing has a number of advantages, both environmental and economic. In the former category: it is often better for the soil and, depending on the degree of mechanization, also for the air). Where practicable, farmers may, for example, also choose to use beneficial predators or other technologies that enable them to apply fewer insecticides. An October 2014 paper in Nature points to the need to combine various methods and not practice no-till alone (see below**).

3. Uses resources efficiently and integrates natural biological cycles and controls
There are many ways to measure resource use efficiency. One is the volume of each input – such as water and fertilizer – used per kilo of farm output. But it is also important to remember related aspects that are harder to measure. These include biodiversity and animal welfare.

4. Sustains the economic viability of farm operations
Economic viability is a criterion that some organizations involved in agricultural development tend to play down, or even view with suspicion. There are, however, three pillars to sustainability:

  • environmental
  • social
  • economic

All three need to stand together. Without economic viability, resource-poor pre-commercial smallholders cannot get out of poverty. The Syngenta Foundation puts great emphasis on including commercial partners in its projects – and on these projects continuing to be economically viable when we are no longer involved. 

5. Enhances the quality of life for farmers and society
Agriculture enhances the quality of life in many ways. Farmers contribute enormously to the world’s nutrition. They are caretakers of rural landscapes for all society. But they can also enhance quality of life on the farm by earning better incomes. By raising yields and tapping into lucrative markets, they achieve freedom from debt and greater ease of mind. They can not only afford more goods and services, but also benefit their children by paying for school fees – and help make their farms into the kind of enterprises that their children wish to inherit, rather than leaving the land for the cities. That is why the Syngenta Foundation works to increase smallholders’ productivity and link them to markets.


Welcome to the debate
International debate about sustainable intensification continues. **A paper in Nature [3] recently noted that: "overall... no-till reduces yields, yet ... under certain conditions can produce equivalent or greater yields than conventional tillage. Importantly, when no-till is combined with residue retention and crop rotation, its negative impacts are minimized. Moreover, no-till in combination with (these) significantly increases rainfed crop productivity in dry climates, suggesting that it may become an important climate-change adaptation strategy." The authors conclude that "the potential contribution of no-till to the sustainable intensification of agriculture is more limited than often assumed."
What do you think about sustainable intensification? We would be very interested in your views.
The following links lead to further related resources. If you would like us to add any you believe should be here, please tell us via  "your views" above.
Field to Market (R)  (The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture)
Save and Grow  (The FAO policymaker guide) 
AgBalance (TM) (BASF)