Agricultural intensification, ecosystem services, well-being

In this new article published in Nature Sustainability, we demostrate that the combined social and ecological results of increased agricultural intensification in low and middle-income countries are not as positive as expected. Sustainable intensification of agriculture is seen by many in science and policy as a flagship strategy for helping to meet global social and ecological commitments – such as ending hunger and protecting biodiversity – as laid out in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Paris climate agreement. However, there is limited evidence on the conditions that support positive social and ecological outcomes. In an attempt to address this knowledge gap, we have conducted a review of 53 existing studies into the human wellbeing and ecosystem service outcomes of agricultural intensification.

Overall, we find that agricultural intensification – broadly defined as activities intended to increase either the productivity or profitability of a given tract of agricultural land – rarely leads to simultaneous positive results for ecosystem services and human wellbeing. We argue that intensification cannot be considered as a simple “blueprint” for achieving positive social-ecological outcomes. While there is considerable hope and expectation that agricultural intensification can contribute to sustainable development, we find that only a minority of existing studies present evidence for this and that even these infrequent ‘win-win’ cases tend to lack evidence of effects on key regulating or supporting ecosystem services, such as moderating river flow or cycling soil nutrients. Therefore, we suggest that we should be cautious about the expectations we attach to agricultural intensification since, in the long term, agricultural intensification can undermine the conditions that may be critical for the support of stable food production, including biodiversity, soil formation and water regulation.

We sustain that it is important to look at how intensification is introduced, for example whether it is initiated by farmers or forced upon them. Change is often induced or imposed for more vulnerable population groups who often lack sufficient money or security of land tenure to make these changes work. Smallholders in the cases studied often struggle to move from subsistence to commercial farming and the challenges involved are not currently well reflected in many intensification strategies. Another important finding is that the distribution of wellbeing impacts is uneven, generally favouring better off individuals at the expense of poorer ones. We find that the infrequent ‘win-win’ outcomes occur mostly in situations where intensification involves increased use of inputs such as fertilizers, irrigation, seeds, and labour.

In the light of these findings, we believe that policymakers and practitioners should thus probably moderate their expectations of agricultural intensification outcomes and strive for improved and alternative practices that take into account aspects beyond food productivity. They should find ways to work towards and capitalise on the maintenance of regulating and cultural services, as well as wellbeing aspects other than income.

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