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What is sustainable intensification?

Sustainable intensification (SI) focuses on improving the efficient use of resources for agriculture, with the goal of producing more food on the same amount of land but with reduced negative environmental or social impacts. 

The term "sustainable intensification" originated in the 1990s in the context of achieving improved yields over the long term in fragile environments in Africa1.  Intensification has the potential to reduce pressure from population growth on the conversion of natural lands to agriculture2

Unfortunately, SI has become somewhat of a buzzword that is often used to describe any type of agricultural intensification that may have any potential environmental benefit3. Sustainable agricultural intensification should not be viewed as a particular set of practices but instead be used as a conceptual framework for guiding discussions on achieving balanced outcomes4

Thus, there can be alternative pathways to sustainable agricultural intensification that will vary by location and scale, based on the agro-ecological zone, farming system, cultural preferences of farmers, and influence of institutions and policies, among other factors. Each of these pathways will have a different set or levels of environmental and socioeconomic tradeoffs and/or synergies. 

Research on SI must be interdisciplinary, drawing upon the theories and methods of the biophysical and social sciences.

Recent SI work has a major emphasis on crop management strategies that can reverse land degradation and reduce yield variability despite climatic changes5. Much of this SI research focuses on the environmental aspects of sustainability using biological and ecological principles to improve the ecosystem services of a given farming system and to reduce the environmental problems associated with it6.

However, production practices that are environmentally sound and economically profitable may have complex social dimensions that affect sustainability.

SI is often presented as a solution to food insecurity and malnutrition. However, increased agricultural productivity does not automatically reduce food insecurity and malnutrition. Achieving those goals requires fair distribution of the benefits from that increased production.

For this reason, SI interventions should explicitly consider issues of equity, poverty alleviation, and gender empowerment7. Ignoring these issues can threaten the sustainability of enhanced production.

For example, if food insecurity is ignored, farmers may have no choice but to sell off productive assets (such as plows or oxen) to meet their basic needs, thus compromising their ability to continue managing their farms.

1 Pretty, 1997; Reardon et al, 1995

2 Cook et al., 2015

3 Godfray, 2015

4 Garnett and Godfray, 2012

5  Dahlin and Rusinamhodzi, 2014

6 Petersen and Snapp, 2015

7  Loos et al., 2014