Sustainable intensification and resilience

We all want plentiful food and plenty of wild lands. Many use the term “sustainable intensification (SI)” to describe attempts to obtain both these desirable outcomes. SI is defined as a process or system where agricultural yields are increased without adverse environmental impact and without the conversion of additional non-agricultural land.sust-intensification

Yet even with such admirable goals, the term is controversial. One resilience worker contends that SI “keeps us locked into a clearly maladaptive path.” [1] SI, to some, is a means of perpetuating the current corporate model of intensive farming with a sugar coating of sustainability.

Others don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. They recognize the value of technology to increase food production, while contending that sustainable intensification contributes to resilience only when it is one component within a larger food system focused on all components of resilience. [2]

Resilient food systems do feature intensive food production but only when the system retains other qualities of resilience.  For example, if the systems is not locally self-organized, intensive production will be a flash in the pan.

SI was originally coined in the 1990s in the context of smallholder agriculture in Africa, where productivity was predominantly low and degradation of natural resources a major concern. Population growth meant that previous patterns of extensive production by bringing new land under cultivation were no longer viable, and that African farmers needed instead to meet rising demand for food and fiber by intensifying production on existing arable land.

Those of us who have seen the ecological degradation of Africa caused by traditional smallholder practices cannot easily dismiss the importance of sustainably intensifying production, rather than continuing to destroy existing land and bring more into production.

However, anyone who has worked in agricultural development in Africa can tell story after story of intensive production systems which failed when the experts left or which failed earlier when the experts didn’t take into account local constraints. When hippos ate an intensively cultivated crop in Zambia and then disappeared into the river, one result was Ripples in the Zambezi [3]—a cautionary tale of the folly of lack of local self-organization.

Conservative innovation is another quality of resilient systems.  Innovation is vital, but will fail when it does not fit the existing system or incorporate local knowledge of constraints on production. ave, the systems revert to those the local people are comfortable with.

Ecological integration is also inherent in resilient systems. Often the practices proposed by sustainable intensification projects are not integrated with the local ecosystem.  They don’t use local beneficial insects or local sources of increased organic matter.  Instead all inputs are often imported.

Similarly, accumulation of local reserves and infrastructure is often neglected when the goal is solely food production, as it is in most sustainable intensification project.

Though not stated in exactly these terms, the original conception of SI (e.g. by Jules Pretty in 1997[4]reflected all these concerns.

But then multinational businesses intent on selling inputs decided to hijack the term. They promoted the term to repackage their high external input models in a more palatable form.

So, somewhat sadly, a term which could have been useful now carries all sorts of baggage. Those who originated the term[5] are doing their best to extract the term from its enslavement by large corporation who benefit from high external input agricultural inputs.

The rest of us can just let the term go.  So far, no evil companies have co-opted our term: ecological resilience.


[1] Lengnick, L. 2017.  Climate change, resilience and the future of food.

[2] Cook et al. 2015. Sustainable intensification revisited. IIED Issue Paper.

[3] Sirolli, E., 1995. Ripples in the Zambezi: passion, unpredictability and economic development.  Murdoch University.

[4] Pretty J. 1997. The sustainable intensification of agriculture. Natural Resources Forum 21: 247–256.

[5] Pretty J. and Z. Bharucha, 2014. Sustainable intensification in agricultural systems. Annals of Botany 114: 1571–1596.