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:

About the distribution of biodiversity on our planet
Large open-water fish predators such as tunas or sharks hunt for prey more intensively in the temperate zone than near the equator.
Bargain-hunting for biodiversity
The best bargains for conserving some of the world's most vulnerable salamanders and other vertebrate species can be found in Central Texas and the Appalachians, according to new conservation tools developed at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Researchers solve old biodiversity mystery
The underlying cause for why some regions are home to an extremely large number of animal species may be found in the evolutionary adaptations of species, and how they limit their dispersion to specific natural habitats.
Biodiversity offsetting is contentious -- here's an alternative
A new approach to compensate for the impact of development may be an effective alternative to biodiversity offsetting -- and help nations achieve international biodiversity targets.
Biodiversity yields financial returns
Farmers could increase their revenues by increasing biodiversity on their land.
Biodiversity and wind energy
The location and operation of wind energy plants are often in direct conflict with the legal protection of endangered species.
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.
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
More Biodiversity News and Biodiversity Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Teaching For Better Humans 2.0
More than test scores or good grades–what do kids need for the future? This hour, TED speakers explore how to help children grow into better humans, both during and after this time of crisis. Guests include educators Richard Culatta and Liz Kleinrock, psychologist Thomas Curran, and writer Jacqueline Woodson.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#556 The Power of Friendship
It's 2020 and times are tough. Maybe some of us are learning about social distancing the hard way. Maybe we just are all a little anxious. No matter what, we could probably use a friend. But what is a friend, exactly? And why do we need them so much? This week host Bethany Brookshire speaks with Lydia Denworth, author of the new book "Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life's Fundamental Bond". This episode is hosted by Bethany Brookshire, science writer from Science News.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Space
One of the most consistent questions we get at the show is from parents who want to know which episodes are kid-friendly and which aren't. So today, we're releasing a separate feed, Radiolab for Kids. To kick it off, we're rerunning an all-time favorite episode: Space. In the 60's, space exploration was an American obsession. This hour, we chart the path from romance to increasing cynicism. We begin with Ann Druyan, widow of Carl Sagan, with a story about the Voyager expedition, true love, and a golden record that travels through space. And astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson explains the Coepernican Principle, and just how insignificant we are. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.