Sustainable Intensification Project

Viewpoint: Rising to the challenge of sustainable intensification

31 Jul 2015

Defra's Chief Scientific Adviser Professor Ian Boyd offers a perspective on sustainable intensification and his aspirations for the Research Platform

The challenge

The global spike in food prices in 2007-08 highlighted the fact that demand for food was starting to increase quicker than supply. Perhaps one of the greatest challenges facing society today is how to feed a growing global population while minimizing the environmental impact. Defra's priorities of growing the rural economy, leading the world in food and farming, and improving the environment can often seem to conflict. Sustainable intensification is a process by which all of these can be achieved simultaneously. Food and agriculture are vital to the UK economy. Our food and farming sector accounted for nearly £100bn of GDP in 2012, and is responsible for 13% of national employment (3.6 million people). This productivity is underpinned by services provided by the natural environment. For example, pollination services provided by wild insects are valued at £430m pa. However, of the range of services delivered by the UK's aquatic and terrestrial habitats, 30% have been assessed as declining. Soil degradation is estimated to cost the UK economy £0.9 - 1.4 bn per year. Meeting the sustainable intensification challenge necessitates integration of the vast wealth of expertise on the environmental, economic and social aspects of farming held by academia, industry and NGOs across England & Wales. Currently however, much of this knowledge is derived from fragmented research on specific aspects of agricultural land management, such as livestock & plant breeding, air pollution, farmland ecology and cultivation techniques. Synthesis of a potentially overwhelming amount of disperse information is too often left to farmers themselves.

What is sustainable intensification?

Although a term that is now common parlance among researchers and policymakers alike, the definition of 'sustainable intensification' remains a topic of lively debate. Sustainable intensification will mean different things to different people and at different scales. For an individual farmer, sustainable intensification could mean increasing profitability by optimising resource use efficiency. For a national policymaker, sustainable intensification might mean an increase in national yield, or an increase in competitiveness, without negative environmental impacts. Perhaps rather than trying to establish a universally acceptable definition of sustainable intensification, we should ask 'what might sustainable intensification look like?' Hopefully the SIP will soon begin to demonstrate some of the potential answers to this question. This will be achieved through a practice-based approach, implementing new approaches to food production and observing and measuring the environmental, social and economic impacts.

Sustainable intensification trade-offs and measures

Measures of environmental sustainability are numerous - biodiversity impacts, GHG emissions, water quality, land use - and these often represent trade-offs. For example, low-carbon farming might produce lower yields and therefore necessitate use of a larger land area, resulting in a greater impact on biodiversity. Obviously, sustainability cannot be defined merely in environmental terms - if agricultural intensification is to be sustained, it must also deliver sufficient economic and social benefits. All these are interlinked. For example, for better or worse, agricultural activity has a great influence on ecosystem services such as landscape and biodiversity. These are crucial to the 3,000 million outdoor recreational visits UK residents make each year, which create social value in excess of £10,000 million annually. This complexity necessitates the development of more sophisticated, integrated measures of farm performance.

The sustainable intensification research platform

The raison d'etre for SIP is thus to investigate farming systems, landscapes and supply chains holistically, avoiding a piecemeal approach which risks concluding that adoption of certain practices will enable sustainable intensification when in fact they are having negative effects on ignored parameters. Only by adopting a transdisciplinary approach to research will we establish an evidence base which can inform the development and targeting of fully integrated land management policies, incentives, guidance and advice that will enable farmers to deliver sustainable intensification.

Professor Ian Boyd is Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. He is currently Professor in Biology at the University of St Andrews.