Food and Agriculture

Thematic Essay

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Agroecology and the Sustainable Intensification of Agriculture

Jules Pretty, University of Essex, UK

Agricultural systems are amended ecosystems with a variety of properties. Modern agricultural systems have amended some of these properties to increase productivity. Sustainable agroecosystems, by contrast, seek to shift some of these properties towards natural systems without significantly trading off productivity. Modern agroecosystems have tended towards high through-flow systems, with energy supplied by fossil fuels directed out of the system (either deliberately for harvests or accidentally through side-effects). For a transition towards sustainability, renewable sources of energy need to be maximised, and some energy flows directed towards internal tropic interactions (e.g. to soil organic matter or to non-agricultural biodiversity for arable birds) so as to maintain other ecosystem functions. These properties suggest a role for agro-ecological design of systems to produce both food and environmental assets.

What makes agriculture unique as an economic sector is that it directly affects many of the very assets upon which it relies for success. Agricultural systems at all levels rely on the value of services flowing from the total stock of assets that they influence and control, and five types of asset, natural, social, human, physical and financial capital, are recognised as being important.

As agroecosystems are considerably more simplified than natural ecosystems, some natural properties need to be designed back into systems to decrease losses and improve efficiency. For example, loss of biological diversity (to improve crop and livestock productivity) results in the loss of some ecosystem services, such as pest and disease control. For sustainability, biological diversity needs to be increased to re-create natural control and regulation functions, and to manage pests and diseases rather than seeking to eliminate them. Modern agricultural systems have come to rely on synthetic nutrient inputs obtained from natural sources but requiring high inputs of energy, usually from fossil fuels. These nutrients are often used inefficiently, and result in losses in water and air as nitrate, nitrous oxide or ammonia. To meet principles of sustainability, such nutrient losses need to be reduced to a minimum, recycling and feedback mechanisms introduced and strengthened, and nutrients diverted for capital accumulation. Mature ecosystems are now known to be not stable and unchanging, but in a state of dynamic equilibrium that buffers against large shocks and stresses. Modern agroecosystems have weak resilience, and transitions towards sustainability will need to focus on structures and functions that improve resilience as well as meeting the primary goal of food production.

The desire for agriculture to produce more food without environmental harm, or even positive contributions to natural and social capital, has been reflected in calls for a wide range of different types of more sustainable agriculture: for a ‘doubly green revolution’, for ‘alternative agriculture, for an ‘evergreen revolution’, for ‘agroecological intensification’, for ‘green food systems’, for ‘greener revolutions’, and for ‘evergreen agriculture’. All centre on the proposition that agricultural and uncultivated systems should no longer be conceived of as separate. In light of the need for the sector to also contribute directly to the resolution of global social-ecological challenges, there have also been calls for nutrition-sensitive, climate-smart and low-carbon agriculture.

Sustainable production systems should exhibit most or all of the following six attributes:

  1. Utilising crop varieties and livestock breeds with a high ratio of productivity to use of externally- and internally-derived inputs;
  2. Avoiding the unnecessary use of external inputs;
  3. Harnessing agroecological processes such as nutrient cycling, biological nitrogen fixation, allelopathy, predation and parasitism;
  4. Minimising use of technologies or practices that have adverse impacts on the environment and human health;
  5. Making productive use of human capital in the form of knowledge and capacity to adapt and innovate, and social capital to resolve common landscape-scale or system-wide problems (such as water, pest or soil management);
  6. Quantifying and minimising the impacts of system management on externalities such as greenhouse gas emissions, clean water, carbon sequestration, biodiversity, and dispersal of pests, pathogens and weeds.

Conventional thinking about agricultural sustainability has often assumed that it implies a net reduction in input use, thus making such systems essentially extensive (requiring more land to produce the same amount of food). Organic systems generally accept lower yields per area of land in order to reduce input use and increase the positive impact on natural capital. Recent evidence shows that successful agricultural sustainability initiatives and projects arise from shifts in the factors of agricultural production (e.g. from use of fertilisers to nitrogen-fixing legumes; from pesticides to emphasis on natural enemies; from ploughing to zero-tillage). A better concept is one that centres on intensification of resources, making better use of existing resources (e.g. land, water, biodiversity) and technologies.

Compatibility of the terms “sustainable” and “intensification” was hinted at in the 1980s, and then first used in conjunction in a paper examining the status and potential of African agriculture. Until this point, ‘intensification’ had become synonymous for a type of agriculture that inevitably caused harm whilst producing food. Equally, ‘sustainable’ was seen as a term to be applied to all that could be good about agriculture. The combination of the terms was an attempt to indicate that desirable ends (more food, better environment) could be achieved by a variety of means. The term was further popularised by its use in a number of key reports: Reaping the Benefits by theRoyal Society, The Future of Food and Farming by UK Foresight, and Save and Grow by the FAO.

Sustainable intensification (SI) is defined as a process or system where yields are increased without adverse environmental impact and without the cultivation of more land. The concept is thus relatively open, in that it does not articulate or privilege any particular vision of agricultural production. It emphasises ends rather than means, and does not predetermine technologies, species mix, or particular design components. Sustainable Intensification can be distinguished from former conceptions of ‘agricultural intensification’ as a result of its explicit emphasis on a wider set of drivers, priorities and goals than solely productivity enhancement.

Enabling policy environments are crucial for the adoption of agricultural systems that deliver both public goods (natural capital) alongside private (increased food and fibre) over time. Policy intervention in agricultural systems has clearly worked to increase output, such as during the Asian Green Revolutions, but has overwhelmingly involved trade-offs between provisioning ecosystem services (food production) and regulating and supporting services. The key question is: can it also address challenges such as improving natural capital, nutritional security and social-ecological resilience? Global-scale policy leaders are increasingly focused on these wider goals. Recently, the FAO made the case that agricultural policies need to emphasise nutrition, and can improve nutritional outcomes by emphasising R&D which is inclusive of smallholders, focusing on important non-staple, but nutritionally-dense foods, and integrated production systems. Similarly, there is an effort to spread awareness of climate-smart agriculture and ‘save and grow’ models that build natural capital while improving yields and nurturing resilience.

Despite great progress, and now the emergence of the term sustainable intensification and all its component parts, there is much to achieve to ensure agricultural systems worldwide increase productivity fast enough whilst ensuring that impacts on natural and social capital are only positive.

Case Study: Political Action from the Outside: Jose Bove and the Confederation Paysanne

John Blewitt

Jose Bove has been referred to as the ‘Wat Tyler of France’. As well as being an advocate of sustainability and localism, he also shows why farming should be a key support for sustainable development rather than its opposite as is so often the case with big agri-businesses. In The World is Not for Sale (Bove and Dufour, 2001: 124) he said:

We don’t believe the farmer’s job can be reduced to marketing. Farmers work with what’s alive and on the land. They promote employment, help conserve biodiversity, and preserve and maintain the countryside. Choices made by farmers directly affect the land and the environment. There are three dimensions to the farmer’s job: economic, social and environmental; and it’s the integration of these three – or lack of it – that defines agriculture today.

His protests won him world-wide acclamation and publicity. British journalist and activist Bea Campbell was one of a number of people who championed his actions:

Last summer [French farmer] Bove and four other leaders of the Confederation Paysanne bulldozed a new McDonald's being built in Millau, their little town in the south of France, the cradle of Roquefort cheese production. The French courts took a tough line. They jailed Bove and his comrades and set bail at £11,000. This summer a throng of supporters stopped the traffic in Millau, near where I'm staying, decorated walls with graffiti proclaiming ‘End McDomination’, and handed out free Roquefort cheese.

All this is part of their campaign to expose the tactics of the WTO as sponsors of big US producers. The WTO has imposed punitive taxes on Roquefort and other local products in response to the European Union's decision to ban imports of US beef impregnated with hormones. Ninety per cent of US beef is hormone-treated.

Roquefort, the sharp, salty, blue cheese produced only in this part of France, has a piquant place in the great debate. Philippe Folliot, mayor of St Pierre de Trivisy, a village in the heart of Roquefort country, explains that Roquefort represents the antithesis of globalisation because it ‘is made from the milk of only one breed of sheep, it is made in only one place in France and it is made in a special way’ – unlike Big Macs or Coca-Cola, which are produced in stiff uniformity in the manner of the Model T Ford, by corporations that lay waste to a landscape of local producers. It is not so much the uniformity that offends the French producers as the producers' loss of control over their own knowledge and skill and the quality of the product itself.

Source: Campbell (2000)


Bove, J. and Dufour, F. (2001) The World is Not for Sale: farmers against junk food. London, Verso.
Campbell, B. (2000) Stand Up for Cheese Power. The Independent, 6 August. Available at:

Recommended Routledge Books

Supplementary Reading





Free Journal Articles

Kuuire, Vincent, Paul Mkandawire, Godwin Arku and Isaac Luginaah, ‘“Abandoning” farms in search of food: food remittance and household food security in Ghana’
Emily Hillenbrand, ‘Transforming gender in homestead food production’
Jiang and Koo, ‘Estimating regional agricultural supply of greenhouse gas abatements by land based carbon sequestration’ 
McLain, Rebecca, Patrick T. Hurley, Maria R. Emery and Melissa R. Poe, ‘Gathering “wild” food in the city: rethinking the role of foraging in urban ecosystem planning and management’
Lang, Ursula, ‘Cultivating the sustainable city: urban agriculture policies and gardening projects in Minneapolis, Minnesota’
Dansero, Egidio and Matteo Puttilli, ‘Multiple territorialities of alternative food networks: six case studies from Piedmont, Italy’
Roggeveen, Katherine, ‘Tomato journeys from farm to fruit shop’
Minkoff-Zern, Laura-Anne, ‘Hunger amidst plenty: farmworker food insecurity and coping strategies in California’
Gregory Veeck, ‘China’s food security: past success and future challenges’
Stephen K. Wegren, ‘Food security in the Russian Federation’
William G. Moseley, ‘The evolving global agri-food system and African–Eurasian food flows’

Video Links

  1. Big Question: Feast or famine?

    Duration: 3:02

    This is a short video produced by the University of Minnesota Institute of Environment which introduces some of the big issues facing global food production in the 21st century.

  3. The other inconvenient truth, Jonathan Foley
  4. Duration: 17:45

    This is a popular 2010 TED talk by Professor Jonathon Foley about the negative environmental impacts of prevailing food production systems. Professor Foley argues that current food production systems are reinforcing climate change and environmental degradation, thus increasing the difficulty of feeding a growing global population.

  5. Home

    Duration: 1:33:17

    This beautiful documentary by Yarn Arthus-Bertrand uses aerial imagery to show the extent to which humans have impacted on the planet. A variety of resource uses and environmental impacts are considered, revealing the scale of impacts that human activities are currently having on the globe.

  6. Agricultural Cooperatives ‒ Key to Feeding the World

    Duration: 7:01

    This short video presents the argument that agricultural cooperatives provide opportunities for agricultural producers to improve productivity and increase incomes.

  7. Green Revolution in the Deserts of Israel

    Duration: 2:44

    The deserts of Israel are producing high value agricultural products ‒ such as fruits, vegetables and flowers ‒ for export to Europe. This is being achieved by using precision irrigation technologies and by maximising the use of recycled water.

  8. TED talk on Permaculture

    Duration: 18:02

    International permaculture designer and teacher Geoff Lawton outlines what is being achieved by this international movement, which promotes an integrated ecological approach to food production. While permaculture focuses on possibilities for producing food in small spaces, it also promotes a different approach to resource management more widely, with emphasis on the interconnectedness of environmental systems.

  9. UN Report Says Climate Change Will Threaten Food Production Worldwide

    Duration: 10:48

    This is a US television report on the findings of a 2014 IPCC report on the likely impacts of global climate change on global food production. It features an interview with a climate specialist on the predicted impacts on agricultural productivity, especially in the tropical zone where much of the world's population is located.

  10. How to feed the world in 2050: actions in a changing climate

    Duration: 6:00

    This is a well-produced video on the emerging and predicted impacts of climate change on global food production.

Blogs and Websites

  • This is the website of the International Slow Food movement. It provides links to Slow Food groups in a wide range of countries and access to publications produced by the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity

    International Slow Food Movement

  • Global Policy Forum is an independent body that critiques global policy and monitors the activities of the UN. This group investigates a number of issues around agriculture, including its role in environmental degradation and the causes and consequences of food crises. The website provides information on the likely impacts of climate change on food production systems

    Global Policy Forum

  • This introduction to geography website includes a focus on ‘green revolution’ agriculture. The evolution of the ‘green revolution’ is described and some of the impacts resulting from its use are briefly discussed Geography

  • The ICARDA website provides access to research showing that the impact of the ‘green revolution’ on agricultural productivity in India has peaked, with some indications of a decline. This poses the question as to whether or not India needs a second green revolution

    International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA)

  • The FAO Food Price Index tracks the change in price of a bundle of food commodities. This Index has been used to assess the potential impacts of global food prices on hunger and civil unrest

    FAO Food Price Index

  • The WTO determines the rules for global trade, including agriculture. The website provides access to information about the impact of global trade on food production and distribution

    World Trade Organization (WTO)

  • This link provides access to information about the impacts of world trade on Australian agriculture. It also provides information on global food security

    Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

  • This website provides access to Worldwatch Institute reports on the relationship between global population, malnutrition and agricultural production. It also provides access to information on environmental degradation and social inequality as they relate to the global production and distribution of food

    Worldwatch Institute

  • Blog by Jules Pretty

  • The Essex Sustainability Institute

  • A programme on sustainable communities and food founded by the University of Sussex, UK

  • A blog about knowledge, food, people and nature