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Sustainable intensification, slowing progress?

News Icon 18/07/2014

‘Sustainable Intensification’ is the latest buzz term in policy discussions aimed at getting more food from the same area of land with less impact on the environment. As I’ve written before, what really worries me is how ‘sustainable intensification’ has become dangerously misleading; so much so that agri-industrial interests have leapt on it as a call to arms, hijacking it in a bid to crank up intensive farming. And in so doing, the meaning behind those words is lost.

Here, Compassion’s chief policy advisor, Peter Stevenson, takes a closer look at the issue and asks, is this term, ‘sustainable intensification’ actually now getting in the way, holding back much needed progress?

What is the real key to feeding a growing world?

Feeding the growing world population is a major challenge.  The term ‘sustainable intensification’ (SI) often dominates discussions in this area.  It is, however, too narrow a concept as it puts its focus on production while ignoring other key aspects such as consumption and the inability of those living in deepest poverty to afford food.  Also, SI gives too much weight to quantity of production and neglects the nutritional quality of the food produced.

These difficulties would be mitigated if the ‘sustainable’ part of the term were given a broad definition encompassing all the elements needed to build a well functioning food system.  However, policy makers often put much more emphasis on the ‘intensification’ part of SI giving scant attention to the element of sustainability.  At its worst policy makers use SI to advocate even more industrial farming.

SI stems from the (erroneous) belief that to feed the anticipated world population of 9.6 billion we need a huge increase in food production; often we’re told we need to produce 70% more food.  And on this false premise governments and agri-business insist that further intensification is essential.

But do we really need to produce so much additional food? At present 24% of global calories are lost or wasted post-harvest or at the retail or consumer level.  36% of the world’s crop calories are fed to animals but only 17%-30% of these calories are returned for human consumption as meat or milk.  This means that 25%-30% of the world’s crop calories are being wasted by being fed to animals.  By just halving the various forms of food waste we could feed an additional 3 billion people.  We don’t need to produce much extra food; we just need to use food more sensibly.

Olivier de Schutter, until recently UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, has written that the global food system is “à bout de soufflé” – on its last legs.  So, what should characterise a new system?

We need to farm in ways that minimise water use and pollution and that restore soil quality, biodiversity and ecosystems.  Intensification often entails monocultures and increased use of agro-chemicals.  These undermine the natural resources on which agriculture depends thereby diminishing the ability of future generations to feed themselves.

Reduction in the use of human-edible crops as animal feed is vital. In a world in which resource efficiency is rightly prized it’s ruinously inefficient to feed 60% of EU crops to animals.  Animals should be farmed on grasslands or in integrated crop-livestock systems where they are fed on crop residues.

We should moderate our consumption of the most resource-intensive and climate-damaging foods.  We would benefit from switching to healthy diets.  The current western diet – including its high quantity of industrially produced meat – is a disaster contributing to high levels of heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

The new food system must be very well suited to the needs of the developing world.  Many of the world’s poor would benefit from increased meat consumption to address nutritional deficiencies.  However, the developing world should aim for a balanced intake of animal foods and should not adopt western diets with their adverse impact on health.

To combat hunger, the livelihoods of the poorest – particularly small-scale farmers – must be improved.  Smallholder farmers must be helped to increase their productivity in ways which match well with their circumstances.  However, this should not entail the introduction of industrial livestock systems as these exclude participation of the most impoverished farmers.

Our food system must be able to serve all these goals.

Peter Stevenson

Peter Stevenson is the Chief Policy Advisor of Compassion in World Farming. He studied economics and law at Trinity College Cambridge and is a qualified solicitor. He also worked for 15 years as a theatre director. He played a leading role in winning the EU bans on veal crates, battery cages and sow stalls as well as a new status for animals in EU law as sentient beings.  He has written comprehensive legal analyses of EU legislation on farm animals and of the impact of the WTO rules on animal welfare.


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