Publication date: 14/06/2018


Sustainable intensification of agriculture is seen by many in science and policy as a flagship strategy for helping to meet global social and ecological commitments — such as ending hunger and protecting biodiversity — as laid out in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Paris climate agreement.

However, there is limited evidence on the conditions that support positive social and ecological outcomes.

The authors address this knowledge gap by synthesizing research that analyses how agricultural intensification affects both ecosystem services and human well-being in low- and middle-income countries.

Overall, they find that agricultural intensification is rarely found to lead to simultaneous positive ecosystem service and well-being outcomes. This is particularly the case when ecosystem services other than food provisioning are taken into consideration.

The researchers found. for example, that it is important to look at how intensification is introduced, for example whether it is initiated by farmers or forced upon them. Change is often induced or imposed for more vulnerable population groups who often lack sufficient money or security of land tenure to make these changes work. Smallholders in the cases studied often struggle to move from subsistence to commercial farming and the challenges involved are not currently well reflected in many intensification strategies.

Another  finding is that the distribution of wellbeing impacts is uneven, generally favouring better off individuals at the expense of poorer ones. For example, a study in Bangladesh showed how rapid uptake of saltwater shrimp production is enabling investors and large landowners to get higher profits while poorer people are left with the environmental consequences that affect their lives and livelihoods long term.

The authors also found that the infrequent ‘win-win’ outcomes occur mostly in situations where intensification involves increased use of inputs such as fertilizers, irrigation, seeds, and labour.

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