Sustainable Agricultural Intensification: Technologies that Respect People and Nature
According to the latest issue published by the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability – “Sustainable intensification: Increasing Productivity in African Food and Agricultural Systems” – 'sustainable intensification' is not an oxymoron.
Even though for many people agricultural intensification could recall the side-effects of the Green Revolution, increasing yield does not always mean damaging the environment. The secret lies in not turning the use of natural resources into an abuse. Indeed, it is now clear that overusing natural resources will inevitably lead, sooner or later, to ecological disasters. And it is also clear that any harm to the natural environment will eventually turn into a harm to human beings. When we talk of agricultural intensification, it becomes thus necessary to link the idea of increasing agricultural products with that of sustainability.
Sustainable agricultural intensification has been defined as “producing more output from the same area of land while reducing the negative environmental impacts and at the same time increasing contributions to natural capital and the flow of environmental services” (p.7).
It is important to underline that 'sustainable agricultural intensification' is not a concept that, so to speak, looks nice just on paper. During the 1990s-2000s the Foresight project Global Food and Farming Futures commissioned 40 projects and programmes in 20 African countries (i.e. the places on the planet where agriculture has been generally assumed stagnant) with the purpose of answering the question “How can a future global population of 9 billion people all be fed healthily and sustainably?”. These projects and programmes covered a wide spectrum of themes, including horticulture, aquaculture, agroforestry, pest management, conservation agriculture. The good news is that altogether, by early 2010, the 40 cases “had documented benefits for 10.39 million farmers and their families and improvements on approximately 12.75 million ha” (p.9).
As J. Petty et al. write in the conclusion of the first article of the journal (which uses some of the projects commissioned by Foresight as study cases), “[t]hese projects of sustainable intensification drawn from across Africa show that if there is a political and economic domestic recognition that 'agriculture matters' [emphasis added], then food outputs can be increased not only without harm to the environment but also in many cases to increase the flow of beneficial environmental services” (p. 21).
“As both agricultural and environmental outcomes are pre-eminent under sustainable intensification", we can read in the same article, "such sustainable agricultural systems cannot be defined by the acceptability of any particular technologies or practices (there are no blueprints)” (p.8). That is to say, whatever kind of technology is able to increase the amount and quality of the yield is welcomed. Yet, and this has to be considered as one of the irremovable clause to accept a specific technology, it has to be respectful for the natural environment too.
One prominent aspect emerged from the implementation of that 40 projects and programmes, this was the importance of involving local communities in the development and application of technologies. As some of the authors have pointed out, the positive results of these projects have been made possible thanks to the direct and active engagement of local communities. The idea of improving African farming efficiency by simply applying technologies that have been successful elsewhere, as someone seems to suggest (see e.g. The Economist: 'A special report on feeding the world: the 9 billion-people question'; February 26th 2011) is just naïve. Technology can be exported only if it can be tailored according to the new context. A context that no one knows better then the local community. As the cases taken into account clearly show, their positive outcomes are due to a participatory process that has seen a strong link between the local community (especially farmers) and researchers.
The intention of responding to specific needs of particular local communities explains also the attention given by these projects to 'orphan crops'. That is to say, that those crops that in spite of the crucial role played regionally, because of lack of a wide market and an interest that goes beyond a specific region, are generally ignored by international researchers and institutions.
Once a technology has turned out to have a positive outcome, the challenge will be then that of scaling up and spreading. The aim of the articles gathered for this issue is that of providing us with some directions to cope with this challenge. J. Petty et al. summarise in the following seven points the lessons that can be learned by those 40 successful experiments of sustainable intensification:
- science and farmer inputs into technologies and practices that combine crops–animals with agroecological and agronomic management;
- creation of novel social infrastructure that builds trust among individuals and agencies;
- improvement of farmer knowledge and capacity through the use of farmer field schools and modern information and communication technologies;
- engagement with the private sector for supply of goods and services;
- a focus on women’s educational, microfinance and agricultural technology needs;
- ensuring the availability of microfinance and rural banking; and
- ensuring public sector support for agriculture”(p.5).
As secretariat of the AgriCultures Network we have to admit that we feel really proud of finding the mission of our organisation reflected in point (iii). The aim of our organisation, what keeps us busy everyday, is in fact helping to spread and share knowledge among and between farmers, and in particular those working on a small-scale. Reading that activities like ours plays an essential role in improving the jobs and lives of these people is really motivating.
- A printed version of the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability can be purchase at: http://www.earthscan.co.uk/?tabid=102759
- All articles are available free of charge at: http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/earthscan/ijas/2011/00000009/00000001
Text: Nicola Piras