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Launch of the 2013 Montpellier Panel report – Sustainable Intensification: A New Paradigm for African Agriculture
19 April 2013


On the 18th April, the Montpellier Panel launched a new report, outlining their solution to tackling hunger and resource scarcities in Africa, Sustainable Intensification. At a seminar hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Agriculture and Food for Development at the House of Commons, Panel members, Camilla Toulmin, Peter Hazell and Gordon Conway, and co-chair of the APPG Lord Cameron of Dillington began by discussing the ‘trilemma’ of challenges facing Africa, that of producing enough nutritious food to feed a growing population without harm to the environment and doing so at a low cost.

The Montpellier Panel, as Gordon Conway, Director of Agriculture for Impact and Professor of International Development at Imperial College London, explained is a group of 12 international experts from the fields of agriculture, sustainable development, trade, policy, and global development. In previous reports they have tackled the issues of food price rises, nutrition, resilient agricultural growth and gender. But now, owing to the misconception of Sustainable Intensification as a cloak for industrial agriculture, they are depoliticising, re-defining and re-claiming this controversial term.

Camilla Toulmin, Director of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) began by discussing the contradictory nature of Sustainable Intensification. When first coined, by Jules Pretty, the term was an attempt to bring together supposedly conflicting pathways, those of sustainability and intensification, two pathways that must be aligned if we are to confront a number of growing challenges not least hunger and climate change.

In essence Sustainable Intensification is about increasing agricultural productivity while decreasing the sector’s impact. As Camilla explained we must stop the expansion of land, increase incomes for rural families and cut the wasteful use of inputs. We need better targeting of these inputs, be they water, fertilisers or pesticides, and better use and understanding of ecological principles for farming.

Some see Sustainable Intensification as a vehicle for corporate takeover, a Trojan horse for large-scale industrial agriculture, but the Panel disagrees. They see it as a set of answers that need to be tailored to different situations. Alongside ecological principles there are a range of valuable biotechnological techniques from tissue culture to genetic engineering that have a lot to offer. Ensuring these technologies, be they ecological or genetic, are appropriate i.e. accessible, easy to use, affordable and effective is critical but perhaps more important than what the technology is is who decides and who controls that technology.

Camilla also referenced the recent Hunger Nutrition Climate Justice conference in Dublin, organised by the Irish government and the Mary Robinson Foundation. At the heart of this conference was an acknowledgement of the terrible inequity of the impacts of and responsibility for climate change. The growing volatility of weather patterns, and in particular their impact on crop yields, and the growing scarcity of natural resources such as land, forests and water, which many of the poorest households rely upon, mean Sustainable Intensification, which urges the preservation and enhancement of natural capital alongside a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions originating from agriculture, is not only the right pathway but an urgent one. As another Panel member, Lindiwe Majele Sibanda, Director of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN), commented, we must view hunger, nutrition and climate change through a justice lense rather than a charitable one. And Sustainable Intensification, under the Panel’s vision aims to do just that – it is a process relevant and generated by the world’s major food producers, smallholder farmers, as well as one that can improve livelihoods, nutrition and incomes.

Peter Hazell, visiting Professor at Imperial College London and Professorial Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), re-inforced Africa’s need for intensification. African crop yields have increased only 10-20% in the last 40 years and this lack of intensification hasn’t equated with a higher degree of sustainability. For example land degradation and soil fertility loss leading to soil mining are exceptionally high on the continent. Sustainable Intensification offers a win-win solution to African farmers one that, at present, seems unlikely to be transformed from a vision to a reality but one that is desperately needed.

A key part of the report is to lay out the practical approaches to Sustainable Intensification that are already taking place. Often there is too much “one dimensional thinking” – if only we would adopt conservation farming or GM crops or fertiliser subsidies or, as is the latest fashion, weather linked index insurance, it would solve all of our problems. As Peter pointed out, all of these interventions do have merit but alone they achieve very little. Rather we need a combination of ecological, genetic and socio-economic intensifications. If Africa is to intensify food production sustainably we need an integrated approach combining natural resource management, modern inputs and market opportunities, requiring the best of ecological science, modern science and an enabling policy environment. To have any chance of achieving a successful integration of these three factors we need all key actors, farmers, agricultural scientists, NGOs, the private sector (from large to small enterprises) and policy makers working together. This report outlines the framework for Sustainable Intensification in the hopes that we can now move the conversation forwards to how we go about making it happen.

Not surprisingly, members of the audience had their concerns over embracing Sustainable Intensification. For example the historical inadequacy of livestock intensification to result in sustainability, including benefits for the poor; donor reluctance to work with the private sector; the need to simultaneously cut food waste; the need for secure land tenure to incentivise farm improvements; and the possibility of knowledge transfer from Asia and Latin America to Africa.

Tim Benton, UK Champion for Global Food Security at the University of Leeds articulated the difficulties in providing incentives for preserving natural capital and ecosystem services originating from non-crop land. Sustainable Intensification at its heart is about preventing non-agricultural land from being converted to farms but incentives either direct or indirect will be needed to ensure services such as pollination, water purification, carbon sequestration and soil generation, many of which agriculture relies on, are sustained, and thus able to be exploited, indefinitely.

A question asked, and echoed at the Dublin conference, is how do we make this happen on the ground? Too often simplistic solutions are promoted by donors. What we need to do is ensure all stakeholders, as a first step, understand this new paradigm of Sustainable Intensification. Then we can push for the investment and political will needed for its realisation.


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