The Many Faces of Sustainable Intensification

Food advocates and policymakers offer ‘sustainable intensification’ as a way to feed a growing world population. But its general definition—to increase food output from existing farmland while minimizing pressure on the environment—can be interpreted in various ways: some good, some bad. The extent to which sustainable intensification feeds more people while preserving limited resources depends on which definition people are referring to:

  • Factory farming, also called ‘concentrated animal feeding operations’ (CAFOs), is the most intense and industrial of all forms of sustainable intensification. It is typically in a very controlled indoor environment. Many modern hog farms have strict biosecurity protocols to protect against diseases that threaten herds, such as swine flu. CAFOs are part lab, part factory, and part farm, which gives them an eerie sci-fi dystopia feel.

    It is true that the output from these “farms” is much higher than a traditional rural livestock farm, but there are many negative impacts that are not immediately apparent. CAFOs depend on large quantities of feed, which must be grown elsewhere. When thousands of hogs are housed in a single facility, their waste becomes an environmental risk, as it can leach into groundwater, release runoff into waterways, or contaminate the air for nearby populations. When considering the resource footprint to feed, raise, and process these animals, it becomes clear that the term ‘sustainable intensification’ is only a half truth: intensification, yes, but sustainable, no.

  • Large-scale monocrops are massive fields of a single cash crop that is grown year after year. They rely on large tractors, high-yield seed varieties, heavy irrigation, and a high application of fertilizer and pesticides to maximize output. Monocropping spread throughout the world during the twentieth century as part of the green revolution. Think of the massive tracts of soy that cut through the Amazon or the endless cornfields that blanket the American Midwest.

    There are pros and cons to these modern farms; they undoubtedly produce more food per acre, and are responsible for saving hundreds of millions of people from hunger, malnutrition, and starvation. But their focus on short-term output is often at the expense of longer-term sustainability. Fields are routinely tilled, killing beneficial soil organisms and calling for higher levels of pesticides to kill invasive weeds. Instead of rotating crops or intercropping, farmers rely on chemical fertilizers to replenish key nutrients that the crop depletes. All of this accounts for a larger resource footprint, so it is hard to say that this form of intensification is intrinsically ‘sustainable.’ And given that most soy and corn monocrops are inefficiently cycled through livestock—producing far fewer calories than if humans consumed them directly—the end use of monocrops is often unsustainable too.

    But there is certainly a place for large-scale farming. Sustainability is scale neutral; it is possible to be wasteful or resourceful on large and small plots. Large-scale agriculture that is truly sustainable might utilize techniques such as crop rotation, water management, no-till or reduced-till techniques, fertilizer management (including the integration of nitrogen-fixing plants), and a mindful end use for the harvest. Given how immense the food needs of the world population are, we need large-scale production. But we also need to make sure that it is done sustainably.

  • Higher smallholder productivity is needed to alleviate hunger and extreme poverty in many parts of the world. This form of ‘sustainable intensification’ isn’t about transforming subsistence farming into highly mechanized, twenty-first century monocrops overnight; it’s about introducing some of the basic nineteenth and twentieth century techniques of high-yield agriculture that have not made it to the poorest regions of the world, including much of sub-Saharan Africa. In these rural areas, smallholder farmers use techniques that literally date to the bronze age. They have poor seeds, no fertilizer, and few other inputs. They dedicate themselves to farming, yet they go hungry for much of the year and endure the many pains of grinding poverty.

    Improving smallholder productivity is the most needed form of ‘sustainable intensification’ because it means greatly improving the lives of the poorest, hungriest, most vulnerable people on the planet. There is a lot of room for them to grow more food on their small plots of land—it is the low-hanging fruit as we work to make the global food system better for people and the planet. Organizations such as One Acre Fund are making an important impact in this area because they deliver inputs and training on credit to poor farmers in the most remote areas of sub-Saharan Africa. Basic resources and knowledge enable these farmers to greatly boost their harvests, which strengthens food security and prevents further land degradation.

Of all of these definitions of sustainable intensification, improving the productivity of subsistence smallholder farmers is the most pressing, as it is literally a matter of life or death. It is also important to recognize that large-scale agriculture is needed if we are to feed 7.2 billion people—but we just need to do sustainably and in a way that is not only about short-term profit. But factory farming is not in line with sustainability; a twenty-acre industrial poultry operation may contain 200,000 egg-laying hens—which gives the illusion that its land footprint is minimal—but this says nothing about the land used to raise grain or other environmental impacts.

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