Developing countries leading the way on sustainable intensification of farming

  • Date

    Thu 23 Aug 18


A major new study shows developing countries and regions such as India, West Africa and Bangladesh are making the most progress on adopting new intensive ways of farming which increase productivity at the same time as improving the environment.

The international project was led by the University of Essex and involved 17 universities and research institutes across the UK, USA, Sweden, Ethiopia and New Zealand with the findings published in the leading journal Nature Sustainability.

The researchers assessed global progress towards sustainable intensification looking at the introduction of integrated pest management, conservation agriculture, integrated crop and biodiversity, pasture and forage systems, trees and agroforestry, and irrigation management.

Key findings included:

  • 163 million farms (29% of all worldwide) have crossed a redesign threshold, with forms of sustainable intensification now being practised on 453Mha of agricultural land (9% of worldwide total).
  • The greatest advances have been made in developing countries.
  • The expansion of sustainable intensification has begun to occur at scale across a wide range of agroecosystems.
  • Sustainable intensification may be approaching a tipping point where it could be transformative.
  • In most countries state policies for sustainable intensification still remain poorly developed or are counter-productive.

Lead author Professor Jules Pretty, from the University of Essex, said countries like the UK needed to learn from other areas and put in place the right policies to encourage “landscape scale efforts” to deliver benefits to wildlife, conservation, water quality and soil quality.

He said: “We have one or two good examples in the UK, but they are nowhere near the scale we see in other countries. I would love the UK to think about how we can conceive the whole of the UK farmed landscape as a place which can produce the food we need and the environmental goods which would be beneficial to all of us.”

Dr Lynn Dicks, from the University of East Anglia, said: “Intensifying agriculture to increase food production often involves using more fertilisers and pesticides, making fields bigger and specialising to just a few products. This intensification process has serious, long-term negative impacts on the environment –  it adds to climate change, pollutes rivers and oceans, destroys habitats, damages wildlife and it doesn’t necessarily provide good livelihoods for everyone or support local communities. But it is still taking place in many parts of the world. There is a need to re-think agriculture globally, shifting to more sustainable systems that are highly productive without the negative impacts.

“Our global analysis shows that the necessary re-thinking is happening at a very large scale already, with re-designed approaches to agriculture being practised on 29% of all the world’s farms, covering almost one tenth of all the world’s farmland. This is excellent news. It reveals an enormous capacity for change, a momentum that we must build upon as a global society, if we are to have any hope of achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all.”

Professor Sue Hartley, director of the York Environmental Sustainability Institute at the University of York, said: "It has long been thought that increased food production would have to come at the expense of the agricultural environment and its biodiversity, but this paper shows that this trade-off is not inevitable and the sustainable intensification of agriculture is both possible and increasing globally."

"The use of techniques such as integrated pest management, agroforestry, and micro-irrigation is expanding and are now being practiced on 29% of farms worldwide, with the greatest advances in low and middle income countries. Our research shows this can deliver the 'win-win' of improved agricultural and environmental outcomes."