The Future of Food and Farming Priority 6: Promote sustainable intensification.

The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and choices for global sustainability
UK Government Office for Science 2011

Executive Summary

From the Introduction
Project aim: to explore the pressures on the global food system between now and 2050 and identify the decisions that policy makers need to take today, and in the years ahead, to ensure that a global population rising to nine billion or more can be fed sustainably and equitably.

The global food system will experience an unprecedented confluence of pressures over the next 40 years. On the demand side, global population size will increase from nearly seven billion today to eight billion by 2030, and probably to over nine billion by 2050; many people are likely to be wealthier, creating demand for a more varied, high-quality diet requiring additional resources to produce. On the production side, competition for land, water and energy will intensify, while the effects of climate change will become increasingly apparent. The need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to a changing climate will become imperative. Over this period globalisation will continue, exposing the food system to novel economic and political pressures.
Any one of these pressures (‘drivers of change’) would present substantial challenges to food security; together they constitute a major threat that requires a strategic reappraisal of how the world is fed. Overall, the Project has identified and analysed five key challenges for the future.

Addressing these in a pragmatic way that promotes resilience to shocks and future uncertainties will be vital if major stresses to the food system are to be anticipated and managed. The five challenges, outlined further in Sections 4 – 8, are:

  • A. Balancing future demand and supply sustainably – to ensure that food supplies are affordable.
  • B. Ensuring that there is adequate stability in food supplies – and protecting the most vulnerable from the volatility that does occur. 
  • C. Achieving global access to food and ending hunger. This recognises that producing enough food in the world so that everyone can potentially be fed is not the same thing as ensuring food security for all. 
  • D. Managing the contribution of the food system to the mitigation of climate change. 
  • E. Maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services while feeding the world.
  • These last two challenges recognise that food production already dominates much of the global land surface and water bodies, and has a major impact on all the Earth’s environmental systems…

…page 34

8 Priorities for action
A key conclusion of this Foresight Project is that no single approach can meet all of the complex challenges that have been outlined above – decisive action is needed across a wide front. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the diversity and scale of the challenges, and the need for the global food system to deliver much more than just food, and food security in the future. The attention of policy makers will therefore shift to the question of prioritisation – where to focus efforts, and how best to deploy scarce resources.
The following 12 cross-cutting actions (Box 8.1 – these are not in any order of importance) are priorities for policy-makers suggested by the wider analysis of the Project.

Box 8.1 Key priorities for action for policy makers

  1. Spread best practice.
  2. Invest in new knowledge.
  3. Make sustainable food production central in development. 
  4. Work on the assumption that there is little new land for agriculture.
  5. Ensure long-term sustainability of fish stocks.
  6. Promote sustainable intensification.
  7. Include the environment in food system economics.
  8. Reduce waste – both in high- and low-income countries.
  9. Improve the evidence base upon which decisions are made and develop metrics to assess 
  10. progress. 
  11. Anticipate major issues with water availability for food production.
  12. Work to change consumption patterns.
  13. Empower citizens.
Interview with Sir John Beddington on this report on the Financial Times webpages
FT Science with Clive Cookson
Food, farming and the NHS Jan 25, 2011 – 5:56 pm
In this week’s podcast: Clive talks to the chief scientific adviser to the UK government, Sir John Beddington, about the long-term global future of food and farming …
Presented by Clive Cookson with Andrew Jack.
Produced by LJ Filotrani


  1. I take issue with a couple of their starting assumptions: people will be wealthier and globalization will strengthen.
    And my question is what is meant (and why highlight) “sustainable intensification.”

  2. “Sustainable intensification” does have an oxymoronic ring to it.
    Thanks to David for pointing out this piece. Unless I missed it though I didn’t find a link to the original in his post above. Just googled the title of David’s post and found the following:

    And for what its worth, on my Google search this blog came up as the third “hit”… nice page rank folks!!

  3. I would suggest that sustainable intensification means no more land conversion from wilderness to farm, more efficient water use, minimal run-off of pesticides and nutrients, and much better crop yields globally. All of this needs best technology practices to spread more widely. That’s why it was bolded.

  4. David:
    I won’t argue with your definition… so far as it goes. In fact it dovetails nicely with the report’s notions. See the block quote below. But I think intensification will (or already has??) approach limits. So how sustainable is that? Perhaps its just a semantic quible, but a quible none-the-less. I suppose I’m suggesting we’ll need more than just intensification to sustain the planet in the face of unchecked population growth.
    This blockquote is from page 68 of the report:

    Box 3.4 Is agricultural productivity growth improving or deteriorating?
    From 1961–2008, growth rates of yields (output per hectare) for grains in developed countries were on average 1.5% per annum and 2.1% in developing countries. Since 1985, there has been a reduction in these average growth rates119. Projections of food prices are very sensitive to assumptions about growth in supply, and hence to changes in yields.
    Growth in agricultural output can result from growth in either area planted or yields, or both. Yield growth can arise from intensification of inputs (more inputs used with the same amount of land) or from productivity growth (changes that yield more output for the same level of inputs). Total factor productivity (TFP) growth is a measure of increases in output per unit of all inputs, including land, and is used as a summary measure of increases in output that are not due to increases in inputs. While intensification (e.g. greater use of machinery, labour, or chemicals with the same amount of land) is an important source of growth in agriculture in low-income countries, productivity growth is generally more important. Identifying the nature and sources of productivity growth is crucial for policy, informing what mix of policies should be emphasised to develop improved machinery, seeds, chemicals, farm management practices, and improvements in land and irrigation.
    Research suggests that global TFP growth has improved in recent decades and accounts for an increasing share of the growth in agricultural output120. In fact, there has been a slowdown in the growth of inputs for production, with variation across different regions. Growth in TFP is important to the concept of sustainable intensification121 because it will ease constraints on land, labour and other resources: 1% growth in TFP means 1% fewer resources are needed to produce the same amount of output. Research and development is key to increasing productivity, but there may be long lead times before benefits are fully realised. In summary, productivity growth has offset the deceleration of input growth to keep global agriculture growing at an average of 2% per annum since the 1960s122. There has, however, been a slowdown in recent years in public research and development expenditure on agriculture, particularly on productivity-enhancing research123.
    There are both optimistic and pessimistic views on the future of agricultural productivity124. In its base scenario, the IMPACT modelling framework assumes that growth rates of yields increase slightly over the next 10–15 years and then decline gradually to 2050. These assumed trends incorporate assumptions about intensification and productivity growth, assuming ‘business as usual’ levels of resources applied to research and development.

  5. Okay. That makes sense.
    So would you say the farmers of southern China 200 years ago had the best adoption of “sustainable intensive” agriculture?
    I know, I know, that is ridiculous. What we actually MEAN by this phrase must be taken in the cultural context. The Chinese system is labor intensive. What we want is an intensive system without so much labor.
    So, where does the energy come from to run the labor saving machines?

  6. The reason I asked that question is because I typically think of intensification as “more inputs per land area” as the report says.
    Then when you link “more inputs” to “sustainable” it can get messy unless you define those inputs and they are seen as part of a regenerative, mass balanced, nutrient cycle. Nothing I have seen in contemporary ag practices approaches a nutrient cycling system. Hence my reference to historic practices in China in which all human waste was captured and brought back to the farmland–even from large cities. They used barrels and barges.

  7. Will people be wealthier? That’s the trend in China. I don’t know if wealth is the right word, but more and more people have a little more money to spend on things that require more concentration of natural resources, such as meat and plastic, as opposed to more basic things like grains and cloth.
    As for globalization – is there any chance that commodity markets would become less international? I don’t think so. Food prices will continue to be affected by distant crop failures and changes in demand.
    In my opinion, sustainable intensification is perfect.
    We know from experience that population seemingly paradoxically continues to increase in the face of starvation. People have more and more children because of need for labor. Birth rates decrease only when women are educated and the need for labor is decreased. Some people would say “why produce more food, that’s just supply and demand, don’t supply and there won’t be demand”, implying that the unwashed will just starve to death and cease to be a problem but the evidence shows that’s not true (in addition to being ethically repulsive). Anyway – we need to intensify agriculture. We need to produce more on less land to provide enough food and to help pull people out of poverty so they can become educated and have reduced birth rates.
    At the same time as needing to intensify ag, we need to make ag more sustainable. While producing more, we must do so with less dependence on resources like water and oil. We must learn how to cultivate ecosystem services and farm in ways that will have reduced environmental impact.
    So – sustainable intensification – bolded and all. It’s a tall order, but I for one think it’s possible – if we can get over our silly man-made lines between “organic” and “conventional” and instead use integrated systems that use the best possible techniques. I talked about this a bit in Toward a better agriculture and in other places.

  8. Energy can come from the farms themselves. Wind of course, biofuels of various types, manure, even animal power. There are ways to save on labor that don’t take machines too – for example the Bt trait reduces (and even eliminates in some cases) the need for other pest control methods. Surely there will be others.
    Francis Thicke (who’s been commenting in another thread here at Biofortified!) has an interesting idea of producing energy on farms and storing it as ammonia – pretty cool stuff.

  9. A turbine which could create ammonia has far wider reaching implications for agriculture than energy production.
    Although that may just be my nitrogencentric side showing!
    (name your favorite high cost input with the biggest impact on yield!)

  10. I am with you, mostly, on all this stuff. I don’t see any trouble, in theory, with farms producing their own energy. Internalizing energy costs is probably the most important thing farms can strive to do right now.
    The trouble comes when farms are asked to export not only food and fiber, but also energy. The math starts to get all crazy really quick if anybody tries to imagine farms making biofuels for cars and trucks and planes, or propping up an industrial manufacturing base, etc.
    (And yes, I know all about new generation biofuels using cellulose and perhaps marginal lands…blah, blah…all garbage accounting systems that don’t scale above the lab bench).

  11. When you are talking about farms producing their own energy, you’re talking about — drum roll — the food vs. fuel controversy. Used to be that about half of a farm was dedicated to producing food for the animals who provided the power. Now we’re looking at diverting various assets and capacities with similar results. Where will the grain farmer go for the ammonia? To someone else. Or the grain farmer will turn grain into ethanol for farm combustion and recreational use. All of which reeks of inefficiency.

  12. There’s no free lunch. For energy production farms will give up some food production–no doubt.
    The controversy only comes from those who want a free lunch. The debate has been somewhat ridiculous.
    I can’t tell if the writers of the report recognize this or not. Farms will need to internalize (either directly or via outsourcing of processing, which is likely more efficient) their energy use. This is a serious potential competitor for food supply rising significantly but c’est la vie.

  13. Well, in late 2008 countries were doing direct barter with each other because the financial system stopped working, as in “I’ll send you oil if you send me food.” Expect more of this going forward with lowering of trade volumes and exchange efficiencies as both financial and oil markets get messy.
    The ability for people to pay more for goods and services is related to their income levels and how these translate into purchasing power. For incomes rising, this is a direct effect of industrial energy use rising. When a gallon of oil or a kilo watt of electricity can replace 10s or hundreds of hours of labor then dramatic income increases can occur.
    Withdraw oil, natural gas and electricity supplies and two things happen. Financial havoc as debt loads can’t be serviced because growth targets aren’t being met, and slower or no growth leading to household income declines.
    If this is too much or too little or unclear try looking at the research of this economic institute based in Switzerland:

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