Sustainable intensification: a new buzzword to feed the world?

The term ‘sustainable intensification(SI) has entered academic and policy discourse in recent years, including in debates about what to do about agriculture in Zimbabwe. I have been intrigued for some while to find out what it actually means. Is this yet another contradictory hyphenation of two words for political ends, or does it have some substance? Who is driving this debate, and what does it mean for Africa?

A flurry of publications have been produced in the past year or two that use the term, and they provide a good route to finding out a bit more. A high profile article in Science from 2013 offered a definition of SI: “to increase food production from existing farmland in ways that place far less pressure on the environment and that do not undermine our capacity to continue producing food in the future”. The major Montpellier Panel report offer a similar one, defining SI as “producing more outputs with more efficient use of all inputs on a durable basis, while reducing environmental damage and building resilience, natural capital and the flow of environmental services”. Other similar formulations appear in a recent Royal Society collection of papers. No one could disagree with these it seems. Is SI then just what we used to call sustainable agriculture, or is there something more to it?

To answer this, we have to probe a bit further and ask what analytical frameworks underpin the concept and its definition, and what policy narratives flow from it? The Science article, and the Oxford Martin School report which preceded it, situate the challenge in terms of the familiar argument about resource scarcity – of land, water, and resources – in relation to a growing population of 9 billion needing to be fed. This justifies a ‘crisis narrative’ argument that pushes towards a productivist response: more food is needed on less land with less water, requiring new technologies to deliver it.

The challenge is often couched in the well-used metaphor of the ‘perfect storm’, memorably used by the former Chief Scientist in the UK to argue for a global response to impending food shortages, in the build up to the oft-cited 2011 UK Foresight report. In recent years a new version of this narrative, with a new word, has emerged. This is now portrayed as the challenge of ‘the nexus’, where multiple resource constraints come together requiring a particular style of (usually) technical, top-down response.

While no one would argue against improving resource use efficiency and boosting production in sustainable ways, it is the link between this technical challenge and the wider framing of the problem and solution where issues arise. These have been outlined in a recent paper on land issues that I co-authored, but the same arguments could be applied to other resources, and the challenges of agriculture in Africa more generally.

  •  First, we must be careful when proclaiming generic resource scarcity as the driving force for action. My scarcity may be someone else’s surplus: scarcities are always relative, and resource access and distribution is a crucial issue that is not addressed by this narrative.
  •  Second, because scarcities are constructed in policy arenas, there is a political dimension that must be acknowledged. So-called ‘global’ scarcities are very often the consequence of high unequal power relations, skewed consumption patterns and poor resource governance.
  •  Third, a solely technical response through increasing production or efficiency in ways that conserve the environment – often laden with yet more jargon such as ‘climate-smart agriculture’ or ‘conservation agriculture’ – ignores the social and political choices around technology and its direction. A crisis narrative that forces a particular trajectory may restrict debate about alternative choices, and debates about pros, cons, risks and rewards. A good case in point is the promotion of GM crops by certain large corporations in terms of ‘sustainable intensification’ (see last week’s blog).

The advocates of SI are quick to point out that their approach does not promote any particular technology over another. Various declarations reiterate this, and a recent Royal Society publication offers a huge array of different technological solutions under the SI banner. The Montpellier Panel, a group of well-known agriculture experts, are even more explicit. They point out the potential for capture of the term and its politicisation:

“the term “Sustainable Intensification” –– has come to take on a highly charged and politicised meaning, becoming synonymous with big, industrial agriculture. As we strive to feed a population expected to reach nine billion by 2050 sustainably, the risk is that we may lose sight of the term’s scientific value and its potential relevance to all types of agricultural systems, including for smallholder farmers in Africa”

Equally, the Oxford report argues for the need to “deepen and extend understanding of systems interactions”, to “consider and define what specific goals societies wish agricultural production to achieve” and to “develop metrics that will enable societies to measure progress in achieving them”. All good stuff, resonant with long running debates about sustainable agriculture, and discussions on the politics and direction of innovation outlined in the STEPS New Manifesto on innovation, sustainability and development.

Yet in all this warm-sounding rhetoric there is an absence of social and political analysis that undermines the approach. In the late 1980s I joined the recently formed ‘Sustainable Agriculture Group’ at the International Institute of Environment and Development, together with Gordon Conway and Jules Pretty. Our approach to agricultural sustainability was in many ways strikingly similar to the current debate about SI. But with one important difference: people and their livelihoods were central. Our work evolved in concert with debates about ‘sustainable livelihoods’ and participatory approaches to development, and had as a result a very different flavour.

Looking at the long lists of authors of papers and reports on SI there are, beyond a scattering of economists, vanishingly few social scientists involved. This is telling, and reflective of the sometimes naïve perspectives portrayed, about the political and social contexts of these debates. Frequently, a techno-economic determinism dominates, driven of course by a passion and commitment to addressing major challenges, but without the necessary social and policy analysis to make it happen, and avoid it being captured.

Take the diagrammatic representations of the approach by the Montpellier Panel. Here ‘farmers’ and ‘communities’ are put at the centre, but all the action happens around them, seemingly disconnected. Agrodealers represent the market, but the process of sustainable intensification seems to be driven by a technical process. It is all well and good arguing that societal goals are defined, as the Oxford report does, but how can this happen, through what political process? In the terms of the New Manifesto, how are innovation directions set, how are the diversity of options defined, and how are the costs and benefits distributed? These are issues that seem not to be on the table, or at least not in ways that are central.

If SI is to have any meaning beyond a seemingly uncontroversial, hyphenated buzzword, then these are the questions that must be put centre stage. For SI to be anything more than a rather odd collection of technical solutions, then questions of socio-technical choice and direction must be put at the forefront. This means having a political debate, and bringing in people more centrally, something that may jar with the rather bland techno-economic prescriptions offered to date.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland

 

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Sustainable intensification: a new buzzword to feed the world?

  1. Stephanie

    Thanks for this. I work at Michigan State University where we are engaged in finding, creating and scaling ‘innovation’ in food systems. I’m one of the few social scientists on the project…and even among social scientists, there doesn’t seem to be much of a perception that politics, power relationships, social contingencies, etc. are fundamental to the process of ‘development’…or at least the idea that they need to be considered is ad hoc, rather than systematic. Do you mind my re-blogging your piece?

    • Stephanie, Then I am not alone in this perception! Please feel free to re-blog, with links back to original. Thanks.

      • Stephanie

        Great, thanks!

        No, you are not alone. I work mainly on urban food systems, and am currently arguing for a livelihoods approach to researching and supporting food-based livelihoods in cities of the Global South. There has been some good urban liveihoods research, mainly among urban planners/urbanists like Jennifer Robinson, Francis Owusu (who suggests a Multiple Modes of Livelihood approach to understanding urban economic life in African cities), Edgar Pieterse, and Jane Battersby….though I think that ‘livelihoods’ still is primarily thought of as a rural thing.

        Thanks again.

  2. am

    There have been a lot of buzzwords over the decades as a solution to lack of productivity and other farming problems. An old farming handbook published in Zimbabwe in the 1950’s which was based on the lessons from the dust bowl of the USA has many lessons to teach. It has all the usual concerns about soil erosion, etc., but few do what is recommended in that book and so the problems continue.

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