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Global Assessment of Agricultural System Redesign for Sustainable Intensification

The sustainable intensification (SI) of agricultural systems offers synergistic opportunities for the co-production of agricultural and natural capital outcomes. We show global progress towards SI by farms and hectares, using seven SI sub-types: integrated pest management, conservation agriculture, integrated crop and biodiversity, pasture and forage, trees, irrigation management, and small/patch systems. From 47 SI initiatives at scale (each >10,000 farms or hectares), we estimate 163M farms (29% of all worldwide) have crossed a redesign threshold, practising forms of SI on 453Mha of agricultural land (9% of worldwide total). conclude that SI may be approaching a tipping point where it could be transformative.

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Aug 17, 2018
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The paper in Nature Sustainability is here: go.nature.com/2vSh0Pr

Think of this. Half of all children you know now will live to the 22nd century. They will have adopted sufficient components of healthy living to see them live a hundred years. Their life journeys will take them past the point where world population will stabilise, then start to fall in some places, for the first time in human history. They will know a world where agriculture, the work of producing food, improves the natural capital of the planet rather than depleting it. This will happen in the temperates and tropics and across all continents.

Surely, you may say, other pressing problems will intervene: political disturbance, climate change, pest and disease, drought and flood. Some of these will be serious, many will result in greater temporary hunger and ill-health. But inexorably, year on year, the world’s farmers will produce the food, fuel and fibre we need, from no more agricultural land. They will do it with responsibility and care for our environments and people. They will be part of redesigned food systems in which healthy food is grown with respect for nature, and is distributed more evenly. There have been many agricultural revolutions across the last ten thousand years of human history. We are now amidst another – and it could be the most important.

Previous agricultural revolutions brought considerable harm to environments, and often also to people’s health. It did not seem possible, at the time, to conceive of a productive agriculture that did not trade off valuable services from the environment. You want food? Well, stop worrying about the birds and bees, the clean atmosphere and pristine waters, the diverse forests and swamps. Losses are simply the price you must pay to eat. This was the narrative.

In this new global assessment, the 17 lead authors show that the sustainable intensification (SI) of agricultural systems offers synergistic opportunities for the co-production of agricultural and natural capital outcomes. We offer a model of change, suggesting that that Efficiency and Substitution can be helpful steps towards SI, but the need now is for system Redesign.

This is essential to deliver optimum outcomes as ecological and economic conditions change. We assess global progress towards SI by farms and hectares using seven SI sub-types: integrated pest management, conservation agriculture, integrated crop and biodiversity, pasture and forage systems, trees and agroforestry, irrigation management, and on small and patch systems.  

We presented data from 47 large SI initiatives (each with more than 104 farms or hectares), and have estimated that some 163M farms (29% of all worldwide) have crossed a redesign threshold, with forms of SI now being practised on 453Mha of agricultural land (9% of worldwide total). The greatest advances have been made in developing countries.

Our analysis shows that the expansion of SI has begun to occur at scale across a wide range of agroecosystems. The benefits of both scientific and farmer input into technologies and practices that combine crops and animals with appropriate agro-ecological and agronomic management are increasingly evident.

But it will not be easy. We focused on the sustainable production of chiefly food crops. This is one part of the puzzle. But there are many deep challenges associated with food production and consumption. Much today is wasted, lost to pests post-harvest, through cosmetic choices by retailers, left on plates or too long in a fridge. In the past generation or so, the proportion of people in affluent parts of the world who are overweight or obese has dramatically increased. We do not address the pull of consumption choices, though we do wrap up with observations on how redesigned agriculture can contribute to greener economies where all consumption patterns are very different to those of today.

Our focus here is on redesign of farming systems that can help shape those individual choices and behaviours. We currently feed more than 6 billion people well, yet the system is broken. Our hope is that system redesign can begin. We conclude our paper with an observation that SI may be approaching a tipping point where it could be transformative. This, though, will need supportive national and international policies.

Go to the profile of Jules Pretty

Jules Pretty

Professor of Environment and Society, University of Essex

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