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News
Agricultural intensification not a “blueprint” for sustainable development

Date: 2018-06-15

Agricultura intensiva


Social and ecological results of increased agricultural intensification are not as positive as expected. This is what emerges from a study involving the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, recently published in Nature Sustainability.

The study, led by researchers from the University of East Anglia and the University of Copenhagen, in partnership with colleagues in Scotland, France and Spain, is the first to bring together current knowledge on how agricultural intensification affects both the environment and human wellbeing in low and middle-income countries. 

Sustainable intensification of agriculture is seen by many in science and policy as a flagship strategy for helping to meet global social and ecological commitments - such as ending hunger and protecting biodiversity - as laid out in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Paris climate agreement. However, there is limited evidence on the conditions that support positive social and ecological outcomes. In an attempt to address this knowledge gap, the researchers, including ICTA-UAB researcher Dr Esteve Corbera, conducted a review of 53 existing studies into the human wellbeing and ecosystem service outcomes of agricultural intensification.

Overall, they find that agricultural intensification - broadly defined as activities intended to increase either the productivity or profitability of a given tract of agricultural land - rarely leads to simultaneous positive results for ecosystem services and human wellbeing. The authors argue that intensification cannot be considered as a simple “blueprint” for achieving positive social-ecological outcomes. While there is considerable hope and expectation that agricultural intensification can contribute to sustainable development, they find that only a minority of existing studies present evidence for this and that even these infrequent ‘win-win’ cases tend to lack evidence of effects on key regulating or supporting ecosystem services, such as moderating river flow or cycling soil nutrients.

Dr Esteve Corbera, co-director of the LASEG research group, highlighted that “very few of the cases examined proof that agricultural intensification is contributing simultaneously to SDGs such as ending hunger and achieving sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems. Instead, we should be cautious about the expectations we attach to agricultural intensification.” He went further to argue that, in the long term, “agricultural intensification can undermine the conditions that may be critical for the support of stable food production, including biodiversity, soil formation and water regulation".

The researchers also found that it is important to look at how intensification is introduced, for example whether it is initiated by farmers or forced upon them. Change is often induced or imposed for more vulnerable population groups who often lack sufficient money or security of land tenure to make these changes work. Smallholders in the cases studied often struggle to move from subsistence to commercial farming and the challenges involved are not currently well reflected in many intensification strategies. 

Another important finding is that the distribution of wellbeing impacts is uneven, generally favouring better off individuals at the expense of poorer ones. For example, a study in Bangladesh showed how rapid uptake of saltwater shrimp production is enabling investors and large landowners to get higher profits while poorer people are left with the environmental consequences that affect their lives and livelihoods long term.

The authors find that the infrequent ‘win-win’ outcomes occur mostly in situations where intensification involves increased use of inputs such as fertilizers, irrigation, seeds, and labour. In this regard, Corbera emphasised that “policymakers and practitioners should probably moderate their expectations of agricultural intensification outcomes and strive for improved and alternative practices that take into account aspects beyond food productivity. They should find ways to work towards and capitalise on the maintenance of regulating and cultural services, as well as wellbeing aspects other than income".

Vang Rasmussen, L., Coolsaet, B., Martin, A., Mertz, O., Pascual, U., Corbera, E., Dawson, N., Fisher, J.A., Franks, P., and Ryan C.M. (2018), Social-ecological outcomes of agricultural intensification. Nature Sustainability. 1: 275–282. https://rdcu.be/XTRl 

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