Sustainable intensification – miracle or mirage?

That was the title of a conference at the Royal Institute for International Affairs, Chatham House, in London on the 10th and 11th of December 2012.

Because it was held under the Chatham House Rule you may find this a rather frustrating blog. I was there as a trustee of the Food Ethics Council, which was a media partner for the event. The FEC had no say in the programme but we were able to put out some of our materials including the special issue of the Council’s magazine on Sustainable intensification: unravelling the rhetoric.

It was gratifying to hear on the grapevine that some people were reading it during the meeting as they found what we had put together was more interesting than what some of the speakers were saying on the podium.

Key question

One speaker asked participants the key question: why was the meeting talking about the sustainable intensification of agricultural production when the world already produces enough for everyone; when one third of all food produced ends up as waste; when 40% of corn in the US this year is going to biofuel; and 90% of soya produced globally is used for animals not humans? And why produce more food when 1.4 billion people are overweight?

Yes, the global population is increasing but today there is no actual shortage of food and every reason to believe we can produce enough food to feed more, climate change permitting. If the focus is on intensification of production and not on the real problems of getting food it where it is needed – on poverty and waste for instance – then it is not addressing the real issue: that every man, woman and child has access to food for a healthy life.

There may be a need to intensify crop production but that is primarily of relevance to the 500 million smallholder farm producers around the world, many of whom are women. They need to be able to double or triple production in a sustainable fashion – which may not require much new technology but application of what is already known.

Sometimes, the speaker noted, it does require thinking out of the box, going beyond the conventional wisdom of scientists and experts. We saw this with Sustainable Rice Intensification, which uses different water and crop management practices to sometimes double yields. If that kind of ‘sustainable intensification’ is what the meeting was focused on then that’s fine.

Not answered

But it wasn’t. And in fact the challenge was not really addressed. On the 1st day speakers did address different aspects of the issues and did not take it for granted that sustainable intensification was the way everything had to be viewed. This was in contrast to the assumptions that seem to lay behind the 2nd day’s discussions.

The focus on smallholder farmers was often repeated but there was a sense from the scientists and the businesses there that what they really wanted to do was get on with the latest technologies they could come up with and extend to the markets they haven’t yet been able to reach, without much interference.

There were predictable calls for less regulation on businesses involved in delivering new technologies, and to let the public sector scientists (who say they can clearly see there were no problems with genetic engineering) just get on with it. Was this their opportunity to engage with others who took a different view, and have a dialogue? No. Merely, an opportunity for different people to state their views.

There were opportunities for questioners to raise issues, including about major institutional changes that might be needed, for example to the intellectual property system; to the economics underlying the drivers of the innovation and the science; and the priorities for research and development. Possible game-changing technologies from lab manufactured meat to making biofuels more efficient were also laid out. But the question I think needs asking is: what game are these aiming to change? For without dealing with the systemic and deeply embedded issues that some speakers spoke about all they will do is continue the inequalities not address them.

A stitch in time….

Some suggested that a focus on 20 to 50 years ahead, especially when it comes to thinking of climate change, can be a way of avoiding the need to take serious and dramatic action now. Many of the technologies being talked about will deliver – if indeed they do deliver – quite a long way down the line. By this time it may be too late to avoid the huge problems of a 4 to 6°C rise in temperature because we’ve failed to do what we can now.

As was pointed out, for people to be nourished to their full potential – and so many are not – implies that there are deep structural challenges to the food system. The renewal and regeneration of natural resources is essential as, if not, there will be major trouble for future generations. Also we have to think about how people can be employed. The nature of that employment is important and if they cannot be employed in the rural economy something is very wrong.

Different scales, hard issues

Some argued that we need to think about different scales; not simply farm and field level, but more narrowly on landscapes and more broadly to the different requirements for rich and poor countries. They pointed out that we need to face up to the trade-offs that may have to be made. But sometimes it seemed as if people wanted to go down the sustainable intensification route to avoid these other things that are really rather more difficult to tackle. There was an overriding sense that we should go for SI because it’s rather easier as it really just focuses on science and technologies not societies, economies and ethics.

On a more positive note, there were many inspiring practical examples of changes being wrought by rural peoples in different places around the world that improve their lives and livelihoods and yields.

Views in the UK

In the UK, people’s views and concerns were increasingly on prices and waste. Food security was not seen to be a UK problem nor was the term clearly understood. When it came to thinking of tackling the issue, there was a sense – at the larger scale –  of helplessness. Instead individuals tended to focus on the solutions they could get a personal handle on such as waste. People were generally concerned about who profits from new technologies. They were often amazed at the interconnectedness within the food system, its interdependencies and issues around climate change and food. Most encouragingly, people got extremely concerned at a societal level about the inequalities and the impact of the free rein of market forces.

So what?

I wonder increasingly about the value of this kind of set piece discussion. Can a few questions and answers from the floor be a good way of taking us forward to actually address the real problems? Instead, more often than not they seem a way of allowing the powers that be to structure the debate, merely tipping their hats to people with perhaps different views from the mainstream.

I’m left convinced that there is a clear challenge to rethink the way we spend our research and development money, the way the public and private sector needs to support small farmer innovation and improvements of their livelihoods and yields and tackle the systemic issues. Will conferences like this make this more likely? Hard to tell. But to be judged successful, they need to.


About geofftansey

I curate the Food Systems Academy, a free, on-line, open education resource to transform our food systems. I am also a member of the Food Ethics Council and chaired the Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty, which reported in 2015.
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2 Responses to Sustainable intensification – miracle or mirage?

  1. Pingback: Nibbles: Maya nut, Afroculinaria, Biofortification, CIP genebank, FAO data, Rice drought, Bioregions, Sustainable intensification, Caviar, Beer

  2. AgroEcoProf says:

    Reblogged this on AgroEcoPeople and commented:
    Sustainable intensification – miracle or mirage?
    The wonderful Geoff Tansey ways in on a recent meeting.

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