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 is the broad term for an approach to agriculture that increases food production from existing farmland without increasing impact on the environment.
It’s a complex subject, and one on which there remains much disagreement on meaning, methodology and motivation. But in the face of a growing human population and finite supply of land, water and energy, policymakers and agriculture must work together to provide the food we need without irreparable damage to the planet we live on.
So what does sustainable intensification look like?
Sustainability is about more than the environment. In this context, it includes the effect of agricultural intensification on social, economic and human wellbeing.
A 2017 study  from the US Government’s Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative, Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Sustainable Intensification, proposed a five-point framework for assessing sustainable intensification in agriculture. These areas are:
• Productivity – including crop yields, animal production and variability of production
• Economic – including profitability, variability of profits and labour requirements
• Environmental – including impact on biodiversity, and both water and soil quality
• Human – including nutrition, food security and health, and
• Social – including equity and gender, social cohesion and collective action.
We agree that these pillars of sustainability are all both vital and mutually dependent.
Economic viability is a criterion that some organizations involved in agricultural development tend to play down, or even view with suspicion. But without economic viability, resource-poor 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.
Farmers themselves must benefit from sustainable intensification. Improved livelihoods enable them to raise their standard of living, attain and maintain better health, and to educate their children. It also helps 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 we work to increase smallholders’ productivity and link them to markets.
Gender inequality in the developing world is a powerful brake on social and economic development. UNDP’s 2016 Africa Human Development Report  estimates that it costs sub-Saharan Africa $95bn per year – or 6% of the region’s GDP. Agricultural intensification projects must help to close gender gaps in health, education and employment just as they must increase yields and enhance water quality.
This complexity means that there is no universal solution. Principles of enhancing environmental quality, reducing use of pesticides and water, maintaining economic viability and improving quality of life for farmers and society may be universal. The methods of achieving them, however, are likely to vary across the globe according to local conditions and needs.
Welcome to the debate
What do you think about sustainable intensification? It’s an energetic and ongoing debate, and one in which we would welcome your thoughts.
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 "Contact us" above.
Field to Market (R) (The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture)
The FAO's view on sustainability...
... and what a major global agribusiness says (but not the one you're probably thinking).