Arguing for Sustainable Intensification

Many arguments stem from semantic differences. Arguments often involve different interpretations of the same word, or  concept. Often there is a reluctance to shift ones own understanding of a concept, as there is an awareness that this may involve applying this shift to other arenas of thought, the fear of re-evaluation of deeply held beliefs.

So, it is important to clarify what is meant by sustainable intensification of agriculture, especially as it is a melding of two different concepts. Two different concepts that have historically be viewed as in opposition to each other.

Firstly sustainable means being able to continue a practice forever or at least for the foreseeable future. Undertaking a practice that doesn’t through it’s impacts curtail long term continuance of the practice.

Secondly, intensification means finding solutions to producing more from a limited resource. In agriculture, this has meant increasing specialisation, or increasing the inputs from other sources to increase production locally.

So, sustainable intensification means producing more from a limited resource, without in doing so affecting future use of the limited resource. however it doesn’t automatically imply that intensification can only be through increased use of external resources, it is here that issues come in interpreting what is meant by intensification. Nor does it imply simply increasing more from any one area of agriculture, a more holistic approach may be required.

Sustainable intensification has come about as a concept due to the challenge of producing enough food to feed the growing population of the world.Part of the problem is identification of what the limited resources are? The obvious answer is land, but it isn’t only land as in modern agriculture resources are used that come from outside the individual farm.  It is for this reason that traditional pre-industrial farming is often cited as being a sustainable model, because most resources used came from within the farm, so had to be sustainable. However traditional farming produces lower yields than modern farming.

Traditional farming was sustainable as local resources were used. Farms were mixed and produced food for consumption by the local community. All farms produced arable crops and animal products. what was useful was that it worked with natural biological processes, rather than seek solutions to constraints imposed by biological processes. Land was fertilised by the livestock, allowing arable crops to flourish and a portion of the arable crops sustained the animals through the winter months.

Industrialisation of agriculture, was a product of economics. The idea of producing low yields of an arable crop on land which was more suited for grazing, and conversely the idea of raising livestock on land which was capable of high yields of arable crops was dismissed on economic grounds. However the intensification enabled by this was not sustainable. It was not sustainable as the soil was drained of it’s natural resources, nature abhors mono-cultures, requiring ever more complicated artificial fertilisers and ways of combating pests/diseases. The battle of restraining nature caused ever spiralling costs.

Agriculture has become isolated from wider society. Further intensification using industrial techniques, including genetic modifications technologies, unless there is a very major breakthrough, is not going to increase yields very much. More lateral solutions are going to be required to achieve the goal of sustainable intensification.

One such solution comes through a  tweaking of the definitions, through ignoring the definition and instead dealing with the goal of feeding the world. not increasing any individual yield, but to focus on a holistic total yield. Western society has become used to consuming foods that are available all year round, from all over the world. Achieving that availability, particularly producing food out of season, invokes costs and inefficiencies. So, the solution is perhaps to ignore what the ‘market’ supposedly wants and instead concentrate on maximising production in a sustainable way. This will involve changing everyones diet. Some popular foods will become more scarce and expensive, especially out of season, other foods will become cheaper. The diets of the people of the ‘developed’ world will be changed in a similar way to agriculture, from working against the constraints of ecology to working with the ecology. Away essentially from the idea of using grain from arable land to feed livestock, to using foraging livestock to maintain arable yields for human consumption.

This process, does involve a change in how markets are viewed. Farming is after all a business, farmers main concern is making a tidy profit. A current phenomena is that dairy farmers in Wales are moving back to pasture based systems away from intensive use of concentrates. The reason for doing this is that costs are drastically reduced. So whilst yields are lower, the profit is increased. This is great economically and in terms of animal welfare, however, it is unclear whether, ultimately sustainable intensification is realised, as it is unclear how much less land is utilised globally in such a production system. There are developments in this area such as intensive foraging, where cows forage on mature grasses, which have an improved nutrient and protein content, leading to higher yields.

Sustainable intensification will be about finding ways of increasing yields on individual crops. by itself it won’t feed the world. The challenge of achieving food security for this over-populated planet, will involve changing diets, attitudes and lifestyles to more sustainable ones. This isn’t an argument for everyone to be vegetarian, as livestock will play a role in recycling nutrients and foraging land poorly suited to arable production, rather people will learn to eat less, but better quality, animal products.

For example, modern dairy herds are almost exclusively Friesian /Holsteins. These breeds have been bred for highly intensive production, involving a lot of inputs, management and are susceptible to disease, to the extent that these breeds struggle on non-optimum foraging conditions. A solution is a return to smaller herds of lower milk yielding, but more rugged traditional breeds, which , whilst producing less milk per cow, will require less inputs and play a part of working with the land, as part of the cycle preparing it to be high yielding arable land. By taking a more holistic approach the total yield of produce over the cycle per acre of land will be higher, than the industrial specialised system, people will need to adapt, as well as the farming industry to more vegetables and less meat.

Sustainable intensification is actually a melting pot of different definitions and re-evaluations of the economic systems people in the developed world live by, but the world needs it. Solutions will come from a melding of the best of traditional sustainable practice, with the best of modern techniques and scientific understanding.

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