The increasing recognition that current agriculture is unsustainable, responsible for the loss of biodiversity and habitats, for the rapid exhaustion of non-renewable resources, and for serious impacts on the climate, the environment and people’s health, leads to the continuous emergence of neologisms to express the need for a new global agricultural model. Examples of these include:
- Sustainable intensification
- Ecological intensification
- Agroecological intensification
- Climate smart agriculture
- Evergreen agriculture
- Eco-efficient agriculture
- Conservation agriculture
- Biodiverse farming (Kremen et al)
These terms have many things in common, yet the nuances are not minor. Their definitions do share concepts, terms and intensions, but the political discourses and political actors (in science, development and business) associated with their use differ markedly.
Sustainable vs. ecological
In 2014 I published a paper where I reflected upon the uses of the terms sustainable versus ecological intensification. Who uses each term, in which context, and what for? Multinational seed and agrochemical companies, as well as the fertiliser industry or the biotechnology sector adopted sustainable intensification (and sustainability in general) as an umbrella term in their commercial campaigns. The same holds for the international development sector such as the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), the World Economic Forum (Davos, 2012), the Montpellier Panel (2013) or the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN, 2013), and by national policies such as the ‘Feed the Future’ programme of the US Government.
Sustainability is a soft concept, as opposed to a hard one, and thus its definition depends on who defines it, when and in what context. In that paper I noted: (i) that as long as the term sustainability remains vague, ambiguous and poorly defined then any form of agricultural intensification may in principle be portrayed as ‘sustainable’; (ii) that ecological intensification was a better suited term, as it implies an intensive use of the natural functionalities that ecosystems offer, by promoting ecological processes through landscape design. Instead of opposing agriculture and nature, the idea is to integrate both in order to improve agricultural production. Ecological intensification would be then sustainable in its nature, as well as sustained by nature.
What is intensification?
In economics, intensification is a term used to refer to the replacement of one factor (or input) for another one in order to increase efficiency. I use the term ecological intensification to refer to the replacement of inputs by ecological processes in order to increase resource use efficiency. Biodiversity in agricultural landscapes plays a major role at fostering such ecological processes. Ecological intensification describes a transition, a pathway, from current unsustainable agriculture to agroecological landscapes and sustainable food systems. This pathway may describe gradual changes or ruptures, depending on both the starting point and the final aim, as well as on the social-ecological context in which the agroecosystem operates.
How about agroecology?
During the last Latin American Congress on Agroecology organised by SOCLA, bringing together four thousand participants in La Plata, Argentina I was invited to debate with Miguel Altieri on agroecology vs. ecological intensification. The audience was surprised to discover that our respective presentations pointed in the same direction, did not contradict one another, and were complementary in terms of concepts and examples. This is not surprising because, after all, I am… an agroecologist!
I see agroecology as the scientific discipline necessary to contribute to understand, evaluate and design ecologically intensive landscapes. Agroecology brings in the necessary knowledge and tools to support the above-referred transition, a transition that I call ecological intensification. Yet I understand Miguel’s and SOCLA’s derogatory position regarding the use of terms such as ecological or sustainable intensification. There is risk of creating confusion by using different terms to refer to the same ideas. After all, as Miguel often says, since the emergence of agroecology the term (and the movement!) has been first ignored, then attacked, and now is being co-opted.
Sustainable Intensification strikes back
Recently, the South American regional consortium of agricultural ministries known as PROCISUR adopted Sustainable Intensification (SI) as one of its strategic pillars to contribute to regional development. Guess what? In my new position, I was invited as focal point to represent Argentina at the regional round table on SI. Just when I thought the debate was over, I was confronted again with the discussion on what is sustainable and what not, what is intensification, and whether intensification can ever be considered sustainable, etc. etc. This time, however, and given the fact that the mandate came from our ministries, not just from my own country but also from neighbouring countries where I have little chance to influence ministerial policies, I decided to take a more pragmatic approach.
We already know what intensification means and, in the eye of a minister of agriculture, if it brings about added value and employment generation in rural areas then it is most welcome. But if we are going to talk about sustainable intensification, let us first define what we mean by sustainability. One way to start is to consider the planetary boundaries (see Figure). For any agricultural model to be considered sustainable it must allow us to stay within a safe operating space in our earth system, considering these nine global indicators, and propend towards social equity while safeguarding cultural diversity and values. Unfortunately that’s not the case at the moment. We’ve already crossed some critical boundaries, and agriculture is largely responsible for that.
To transition towards sustainability, our agricultural research for development efforts should contribute to:
1. Reduce the dependence of agriculture on non-renewable resources
2. Reduce its impacts on the environment and nature (soil, water, air, organisms, genomes)
3. Restore the productive capacity of degraded soils
4. Reduce the current expansion of the agricultural frontier onto marginal and/or biodiversity rich areas
5. Maximise resource use efficiency through the optimisation of ecological processes
6. Adapt to and contribute to mitigate climate change
7. Promote the necessary technological and organisational innovations
8. Design compatible value chains and guarantee systems
9. Offer opportunities for farming families to remain in rural areas
10. Align the agricultural agenda with the UN Sustainable Development Goals
If we can agree on this Decalogue as a minimum set of goals to achieve sustainable intensification – or, by the same token, climate smart or ecoefficient agriculture – then we can move away from pompous terms and endless debates about multiple possible paradigms. Then, irrespective of the term chosen, we will be able to generate new narratives and political messages to foster the much-needed change. But once again, I hope I do not upset anyone by saying that it is hard to imagine how such transition could be accomplished, how these ten goals could be achieved, without the insights from and the practice of agroecology.