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Making sense of "sustainable intensification"

News Section Icon Published 12/12/2012

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Yesterday, Chatham House in London held a conference entitled "Sustainable Intensification: miracle or mirage?". Sustainable Intensification (SI) sounds great (it must be good if it's "sustainable", right!?), but the term is regularly hijacked by the factory-farming lobby to justify their existence. Here's the lowdown.

The rise of "sustainable intensification"

Everywhere you look, the idea of SI is being pushed as the next big thing. "You can produce more and spend less!", its proponents cry.

And to a certain extent, that's true; big agribusinesses will produce more and pay less. But the quality of the product will be low and we will all be forced to pay in the form of trashed environments, health threats, job losses, etc. (not to mention the suffering endured by factory-farmed animals).

An excuse for more factory farming

But this reality isn't widely acknowledged and there's a serious risk that SI becomes used to drive more factory farming, which is already failing to feed our growing global population. Unfortunately, factory farms waste food, not make it. Enough cereal to feed three billion people is currently fed to industrial livestock, who give back a fraction of the food value in terms of protein and calories.

Compassion’s most recent research shows that intensifying livestock farming through moving to grain-based animal feeds would make food security harder to achieve, particularly in the most vulnerable areas of the world, including parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Pursuing intensification of livestock is simply unacceptable.

Many farmers, their farm animals and the environment are in a sorry state as a result of the intensification of farming, which pushes out small-scale farmers in the pursuit of big agri-businesses.

Some "intensification" can be a good thing

We completely agree that in low-income nations, some interventions can enhance farm systems with multiple benefits. Improved access to water, shelter and veterinary care can improve animal welfare, human welfare, sustainability and food security. But we wouldn’t call this "intensification"; this is basic animal husbandry.

Enough food for everyone already

Compassion in World Farming's Chief Executive, Philip Lymbery, attended the conference and was struck by the words of a prominent speaker: "We produce enough food for every man, every woman, and every child on the planet". The speaker then went on to outline the shameful reality that a billion people go to bed hungry each night. He called for greater support for the hundreds of millions of small farmers who produce the majority of the world’s food.

A call for common sense

To become truly sustainable for people, the planet and farm animals, farming in the West must de-intensify. We call on governments and investors to support extensive farmers in both industrialised and less industrialised parts of the world, to achieve better food security and healthy diets for all.

For more information on SI and why it's not the answer to feeding the planet, read Compassion's new Statement on Sustainable Intensification here.