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Study shows success of sustainable intensification

Published: 12 September 2018 at 15:17

Tea plantation

Assessment indicates sustainable agricultural practices have been adopted by 163m farms

Nearly one-third of the world’s farms have adopted more environmentally friendly practices while continuing to be productive, according to a global assessment by 17 scientists in five countries.

The researchers, including Dr Zareen Bharucha from Anglia Ruskin University’s Global Sustainability Institute, analysed farms that use some form of ‘sustainable intensification’, a term for various practices, including organic farming, that increase crop yields while simultaneously improving ecosystems on and off farm, and build strong agricultural communities.  

Writing in the journal Nature Sustainability, the researchers estimate that nearly 163 million farms worldwide, covering over a billion acres, now practice some form of sustainable intensification, often with dramatic results. 

The article shows that new practices can improve productivity, biodiversity and ecosystem services while lowering costs for farmers. It documents, for example, how West African farmers have increased yields of maize and cassava, and how some 100,000 farmers in Cuba have increased their productivity by 150% while also cutting their pesticide use by 85%.

Dr Bharucha, a Senior Research Fellow at Anglia Ruskin University’s Global Sustainability Institute and a co-author of the paper, said: 

“These results show that farmers can lead a global transition to sustainable land use. Small farmers in the Global South, particularly, have shown that really dramatic results are possible, with crop yields, incomes, farm biodiversity and community health all improving after adopting these practices.”

Jules Pretty, the study’s lead author and a Professor of Environment and Society at the University of Essex, first used the term “sustainable intensification” in a 1997 study of African agriculture. 

While the word “intensification” typically applies to environmentally harmful agriculture, Pretty used the term “to indicate that desirable outcomes, such as more food and better ecosystem services, need not be mutually exclusive”.  The term now appears in more than 100 academic papers a year and is central to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

The authors of the new Nature Sustainability research say that sustainable intensification has now reached a “tipping point” in which it can be more widely adopted through governmental incentives and policies.

Dr Bharucha, who helped to collate the evidence for the new paper and analyse the data, added: 

“Sustainable intensification needs policy support across the globe. Farmers have shown what is possible with the right support; now, we need that support to be scaled up in order to meet the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. 

“The benefits go beyond good food for all; they include stronger rural communities, better public health, poverty reduction and decent livelihoods.”