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Talking Point: Sustainable Intensification
23 April 2013


This space is dedicated to expert comment and opinion on issues surrounding climate & environment, infrastructure and livelihoods. The page is updated regularly with contributions from top academics and people on the front line of development work, and we want to hear your thoughts on what they say, too. So if you'd like to contribute a talking point or comment on something you've read below then email enquiries@evidenceondemand.org and join the debate... Click here to view previous talking points

Rethinking Sustainable Agricultural Intensification for Africa

On the release of the Montpellier Panel's new report, world-renowned agricultural ecologist and the panel's chair, Gordon Conway, writes exclusively for Evidence on Demand...

On a continent where over 200 million people suffer chronic hunger and 40% of children under the age of five are stunted, finding solutions to meeting Africa's food needs is both urgent and complex.

One such solution is Sustainable Intensification. At first glance this term may seem to be an oxymoron, and indeed many consider it a ruse for industrial agriculture, in other words business-as-usual with token concessions to the environment. However, a new report, Sustainable Intensification: A New Paradigm for African Agriculture, authored by the Montpellier Panel of which I am chair, aims to demystify Sustainable Intensification. The Montpellier Panel is a group of African and European experts from the fields of agriculture, sustainable development, trade and policy, and the report redefines and reframes the term, hailing it as a new (and achievable) paradigm to help smallholder farmers tackle food insecurity in Africa.

But what is Sustainable Intensification? The panel defines it simply as "producing more outputs with more efficient use of all inputs - on a durable basis - while reducing environmental damage and building resilience, natural capital and the flow of environmental services." Intensification alone is defined in the report as the increase in outputs (i.e. production, income or nutrition-related) per unit of inputs (e.g. water, labour, inorganic or organic fertilisers, pesticides or biodiversity).

On its own, agricultural intensification is insufficient to confront the world's food and resource scarcity and access problems. Indeed any intensification process must be made sustainable through the prudent use of inputs, efficiency in seeking returns and reducing waste, resilience to future shocks and stresses and equitable access for all producers and consumers. Sustainable Intensification encompasses a range of goals that must be achieved simultaneously. The report moves beyond mere definitions to practical approaches and draws on a range of real-life examples of Sustainable Intensification. These examples are grouped into three forms - ecological intensification; genetic intensification and socio-economic intensification - each of which are equally important and must be used in combination in order to achieve the subscribed paradigm shift.

This report aims to move what is often an intense academic debate around the merits and shortcomings of Sustainable Intensification to a discussion of the ways in which it can be relevant and implementable to African smallholder farmers. For example, "microdosing" of fertilisers - whereby a soda bottle cap of fertiliser is applied to each hole before a seed is sown - has been developed as a viable alternative to the highly technological precision farming gathering momentum in the west. Microdosing aims to minimise the application of inorganic fertiliser, a costly and often hard to access input, as well as protect against drought. Such examples illustrate that the often divergent aims of production and environmental protection can, in fact, work synergistically while remaining relevant to small-scale African food producers.

What is apparent is that only a new way of thinking will allow us to develop a benign agriculture that ultimately contributes to people's and the planet's wellbeing. Sustainable Intensification can be at the heart of this new way of thinking. The challenge now is to scale up promising successes to be larger in geographical footprint and scope and to link and combine them with other existing proven technologies, processes and systems in order to create a sustainable, resilient and productive way for farmers to earn their livelihood, ensure food security and safeguard the environment now and in the future.

Gordon Conway is a Professor of International Development at Imperial College London, Director of Agriculture for Impact (A4I) and chair of the Montpellier Panel. He has previously held the roles of Chief Scientific Adviser to the Department for International Development, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sussex and President of the Royal Geographical Society. His most recent book One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed the World? was published in October 2012.


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