Nav: Home

Agricultural intensification not a 'blueprint' for sustainable development

June 14, 2018

New research suggests that the combined social and ecological results of increased agricultural intensification in low and middle-income countries are not as positive as expected.

The study, led by researchers from the University of East Anglia (UEA) and University of Copenhagen, is the first to bring together current knowledge on how agricultural intensification affects both the environment and human wellbeing in these countries.

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, the researchers from UEA and Copenhagen, working with colleagues in Scotland, France and Spain, conducted a review of 53 existing studies into the human wellbeing and ecosystem service outcomes of agricultural intensification.

Overall, they 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.

Publishing their findings in Nature Sustainability, the authors 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, they 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.

Principal investigator for UEA Adrian Martin, professor of environment and development, said: "We have scant evidence to back up the weight of expectation that we currently see attached to agricultural intensification. By contrast, we find that negative outcomes are still common.

"Few of the cases we examined provide evidence that agricultural intensification is contributing simultaneously to SDGs such as ending hunger and achieving sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems.

"If we are to achieve sustainable intensification of agricultural land, we clearly need new approaches. This must involve putting what we already know into practice but also working to fill some considerable knowledge gaps."

The researchers also found 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.

Co-author Dr Laura Vang Rasmussen, from the University of Copenhagen, said: "Although agricultural intensification is often considered the backbone of food security, the reality is that intensification is often undermining conditions that may be critical for the support of long-term and stable food production, including biodiversity, soil formation and water regulation."

Another important finding is that the distribution of wellbeing impacts is uneven, generally favouring better off individuals at the expense of poorer ones. For example, a study in Bangladesh showed how rapid uptake of saltwater shrimp production is enabling investors and large landowners to get higher profits while poorer people are left with the environmental consequences that affect their lives and livelihoods long term.

The authors 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.

Prof Martin added: "These are important lessons that policymakers and practitioners can respond to in terms of moderating their expectations of agricultural intensification outcomes and striving for improved and alternative practices.

"Future research efforts need to consider how biodiversity and ecosystem services other than food production, particularly regulating and cultural services, as well as wellbeing aspects other than income, can be incorporated into assessments of social-ecological outcomes of agricultural intensification."
-end-
'Social-ecological outcomes of agricultural intensification', Laura Vang Rasmussen, Brendan Coolsaet, Adrian Martin, Ole Mertz, Unai Pascual, Esteve Corbera, Neil Dawson, Janet A Fisher, Phil Franks, Casey M Ryan, is published in Nature Sustainability on June 14, 2018.

University of East Anglia

Related Biodiversity Articles:

Mapping global biodiversity change
A new study, published in Science, which focuses on mapping biodiversity change in marine and land ecosystems shows that loss of biodiversity is most prevalent in the tropic, with changes in marine ecosystems outpacing those on land.
Bee biodiversity barometer on Fiji
The biodiversity buzz is alive and well in Fiji, but climate change, noxious weeds and multiple human activities are making possible extinction a counter buzzword.
What if we paid countries to protect biodiversity?
Researchers from Sweden, Germany, Brazil and the USA have developed a financial mechanism to support the protection of the world's natural heritage.
Grassland biodiversity is blowing in the wind
Temperate grasslands are the most endangered but least protected ecosystems on Earth.
The loss of biodiversity comes at a price
A University of Cordoba research team ran the numbers on the impact of forest fires on emblematic species using the fires in Spain's Doñana National Park and Segura mountains in 2017 as examples
Biodiversity and carbon: perfect together
Biodiversity conservation is often considered to be a co-benefit of protecting carbon sinks such as intact forests to help mitigate climate change.
The last chance for Madagascar's biodiversity
A group of scientists from Madagascar, UK, Australia, USA and Finland have recommended actions the government of Madagascar's recently elected president, Andry Rajoelina should take to turn around the precipitous decline of biodiversity and help put Madagascar on a trajectory towards sustainable growth.
Biodiversity draws the ecotourism crowd
Nature -- if you support it, ecotourists will come. Managed wisely, both can win.
Biodiversity for the birds
Can't a bird get some biodiversity around here? The landscaping choices homeowners make can lead to reduced bird populations, thanks to the elimination of native plants and the accidental creation of food deserts.
Biodiversity can also destabilize ecosystems
According to the prevailing opinion, species-rich ecosystems are more stable against environmental disruptions such as drought, hot spells or pesticides.
More Biodiversity News and Biodiversity Current Events

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2019.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Risk
Why do we revere risk-takers, even when their actions terrify us? Why are some better at taking risks than others? This hour, TED speakers explore the alluring, dangerous, and calculated sides of risk. Guests include professional rock climber Alex Honnold, economist Mariana Mazzucato, psychology researcher Kashfia Rahman, structural engineer and bridge designer Ian Firth, and risk intelligence expert Dylan Evans.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#541 Wayfinding
These days when we want to know where we are or how to get where we want to go, most of us will pull out a smart phone with a built-in GPS and map app. Some of us old timers might still use an old school paper map from time to time. But we didn't always used to lean so heavily on maps and technology, and in some remote places of the world some people still navigate and wayfind their way without the aid of these tools... and in some cases do better without them. This week, host Rachelle Saunders...
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dolly Parton's America: Neon Moss
Today on Radiolab, we're bringing you the fourth episode of Jad's special series, Dolly Parton's America. In this episode, Jad goes back up the mountain to visit Dolly's actual Tennessee mountain home, where she tells stories about her first trips out of the holler. Back on the mountaintop, standing under the rain by the Little Pigeon River, the trip triggers memories of Jad's first visit to his father's childhood home, and opens the gateway to dizzying stories of music and migration. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.