Sustainable Intensification and Efficiency – how values reflect strategies for sustainable food

In a previous post I described sustainable diets, a consumption-side solution to the sustainable food system problem, and mentioned other solutions namely; reducing food losses and waste and improving governance. So far one particular mindset has dominated sustainable agricultural policy, the ‘sustainable intensification’ of food production. There are many concerns about the dominance of this mindset; whether it would be successful, whose interests it most represents, and what kind social, economic, and environmental trade-offs will result from this approach. Unfortunately it is being pursued without an analysis of these questions having being considered first. Below is a short exploration of this scenario, as I see it. Again, included is a list of resources and links within the text for further reading.


The meaning of a term like ‘sustainable’ becomes increasingly ambiguous as various people assign different meanings to it. One person’s definition of the term can vary considerably with the next person’s, both of which certainly loaded with an individual’s values and aspirations for the food system. We all bring our own set of biases, values, and agendas to the table when discussing how to create a sustainable food system (whatever that is). The manner in which we use terms like sustainable, and the statistics and metrics we select to analyse the problem are often conveniently aligned with our own values. “…facts are squeezed and edited and shaved to fit the desired or assumed narrative. And those with most power tend to determine which narrative dominates” according to Garnett (2015) in which she also writes that “different beliefs and values about [food] give rise to different diagnoses of the real underlying problems, and these in turn shape different visions of what ‘good’ actually looks like”. This is fundamental to debates over the WHO, WHAT, and HOW of achieving a sustainable food system, that is, WHO decides WHAT a sustainable food system is and HOW we can achieve it, or at least try to achieve it.

Analysis of the food system sustainability problem are usually as follows – ‘future food security relies heavily upon the ability to make more food from less inputs whilst generating less environmental problems. Since food production contributes to climate change and a growing population compounds the problem we need a system that is much more efficient, to increase production with less negative impacts’. This forms the core of the so called Sustainable Intensification (SI) framework, a production system in which “yields are increased without adverse environmental impact and without the cultivation of more land” (Royal Society, 2009). Efficiency, meanwhile, is a ratio and describes the relationship between inputs and outputs. In this case producing more food for a given level of inputs.

The terms SI and efficiency have become embedded in government policy, agri-business strategies and food industry commitments, in agricultural science papers, intergovernmental organisations and high level conferences. It is fair to say it has become a dominant narrative. However, there are many unresolved issues surrounding these terms which are discussed in great detail here and here. What these terms actually represent is a supply-side solution for the food system. Increasing the efficiency of production does make perfect sense since avoidable production of negative outputs, such as GHG emissions, represents an avoidable waste of inputs and avoidable pollution too. However, a growing body of research yet to influence policy circles suggests that supply-side approaches are not sufficient to solve the problem alone. And in the absence of measures to restrict demand of resource intense foods, increased efficiency may in fact result in a ‘rebound’ effect of increased consumption (SI apologists however will be quick to evoke the ‘leakage effect’ in its defense – and so the debate rages on while nothing is resolved).

Garnett makes an important observation that “a highly efficient system may still generate a great and ever increasing quantity of negative impacts if the consumption of the outputs increases faster than the efficiency gains” and “there is a risk that a focus on simple measures of efficiency can lead to investment only in high yielding production systems that deliver high output per unit of GHG emissions, but may not fully serve the full nutritional needs of the global population or provide other outputs important to sustainable livelihoods, including those that are harder to define”. So our reliance on efficiency as a measure of sustainability ought to be seriously questioned. SI and efficiency represent only one, albeit very important, part of the solution. If we are to have any realistic shot at creating a sustainable food system, the other strategies of shifting diets, reducing waste, improving governance, closing ‘yield gaps’ and halting agricultural expansion must ALSO be pursued together.

So what does this say about the WHO, WHAT and HOW? Well, perhaps it reflects who and what is most influential in the policy process. Production minded people may be more influential (or can afford to lobby more aggressively) and can propose a supply-side solution that fits conveniently with the absolutely unquestionable economic ideology of our time, that of unfettered growth. Perhaps policy in general is yet to be based on an accurate understanding of the physical limits to resource extraction and pollution (so called Limits to Growth). Perhaps policy makers are surrounded by people who are simply unaware of these other complementary strategies and would act differently were they better informed. Perhaps those with opposing views are not being given the chance (or are even resisting) to negotiate the trade-offs – resulting in intellectual tennis matches whilst the status quo continues uninterrupted. Perhaps for the average consumer the environment is the least of their food concerns and in a market system industry responds to consumer behavior accordingly and will continue to satisfy our insatiable demand for resource intensive foods. And finally, perhaps climate scientists are failing to communicate their research and translate their findings into policy.

I suspect there is some truth to all of the above. I also suspect that all the stakeholders in the food system (which is essentially everyone since we all eat) are not openly discussing what exactly it is they want from the food system and some values remain louder than others. Garnett once again states that “These are the ‘soft’ issues that are too rarely discussed openly even though they underpin so many of the disagreements we have”. Before these values can be reconciled they must be communicated clearly and honestly. Then the difficult task of negotiating trade-offs should be made by a highly informed civil society and government to decide who’s interests are prioritized, what the food system should be transformed to, and how we should go about transforming it.

Further Reading:

Foley et al. (2011) Solutions for a cultivated planet. Nature 478, 337–342
Godfray C. & Garnett T. (2014). Food security and sustainable intensification. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 369, 20120273
Garnett et al. (2013). Sustainable Intensification in Agriculture: Premises and Policies. Science 341 33-34
Garnett T. (2010) Where are the best opportunities for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the food system (including the food chain)? Food Policy 26 S23-S32
Friends of the Earth – Wolf in Sheeps Clothing? An analysis of the sustainable intensification of agriculture
Herring & Roy (2007). Technological innovation, energy efficient design and the rebound effect. Technovation 27 194-203
Bajželj et al. (2014). Importance of food-demand management for climate mitigation. Nature Climate Change 4, 924-929.

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