Lesson 1, Topic 1
In Progress

 Food supply practice: Agriculture

Agriculture is a broad summary term for a very wide range of activities. It refers to landscape-scale food production through cultivation, domestication, horticulture (gardening), arboriculture (tree farming), and vegeculture (cultivation of vegetables), as well as livestock management like mixed crop-livestock farming, pastoralism, and transhumance. Although sometimes, agriculture and crop cultivation are used as synonyms. However, agriculture usually includes both crop cultivation and livestock raising (Harris & Fuller, 2014).

Basic agricultural terminology Source: (Harris & Fuller, 2014)

Agricultural evolution, intensification and sustainability

The figure below shows the evolution of agriculture through cultivation (human actions focused on preparing the soil, planting, tending, and harvesting plants) and domestication (genetic and morphological changes that increase a plant’s ability to adapt to cultivation). Agriculture is both a land use and a form of economy.

An evolutionary model from foraging to agriculture, in which the transitions to cultivation, domestication, and agriculture are separated (Adapted from: Harris & Fuller, 2014).

Agricultural production has increased steadily during the post-domestication phase which we are in and land is used more and more intensively. However, this development has not at all been uniform in space and time. Food production was already on the rise in industrializing countries during the 19th century. The term Green Revolution describes the phenomenon of the rapid increase in crop productivity through technical improvements like innovations in plant breeding, mechanization, irrigation, and plant and animal disease control. Between the early 1940s and the late 1970s, the rapid dissemination of scientific knowledge across Latin America and Asia, paired with enabling institutional environments, led to productivity gains mainly in cereal grains like wheat, rice, and maize.
However, critics describe the uneven distribution of benefits among stakeholders in the food system as problematic. Also, the high hopes for the African content to retrace the same route were not fulfilled. At the same time, critical voices point out the detrimental effects of intensified agriculture on the environment, such as soil degradation, chemical pollution, water resource depletion, and soil salinization.

Both extensification, bringing new land into agriculture, and intensification, increasing the productivity of existing agriculturally used land, come at their costs. Both are associated with resource depletion and high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Converting land, particularly wetland and forest ecosystems, to agriculture is suggested to cause the release of much larger amounts of greenhouse gas emissions from stocked carbon. Yet, it is largely acknowledged that intensification alone will further exacerbate existing environmental problems and climate change, and that food and agricultural production strongly impact various components of the environment (find out more here).

Sustainable intensification is one of the latest additions to the plethora of approaches, which yields the promise to reconcile increased food production with environmental protection. The concept was brought forward for the first time by Jules Pretty (1997) and centers around techniques that increase yields to cater to the growing population and that provide environmental benefits. Biological techniques include increasing agricultural system diversity through intercropping, agroforestry, or crop-livestock integration, zero tillage farming to reduce soil erosion, precision agriculture for efficient water and nutrient management, integrated pest management, or the use of drought-resistant crops. These can be coupled with intensification techniques such as the use of cover crops, increased crop density, terracing, increased fertilizer efficiency, composting, the use of green manure, or the use of natural enemies to pests.

However, both the terms “sustainability” and “intensification” are not clear-cut and highly context-specific. Practices that are sustainable in an ecological way may not be sustainable in an economic one and what is appropriate in one location may not apply in the same way elsewhere. Another criterion is scale. Are we looking at one or more locations, a landscape, a region, or the globe?

Type of agricultureDefinition/CharacteristicsSource
Organic agricultureOrganic is a labelling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster the cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.United States Department of Agriculture
Conservation agricultureAgricultural management is based on the following three principles: minimizing soil disturbance, permanent soil cover, and implementing crop rotations.United Nations FAO
AgroecologyThe application of ecology to the design and management of sustainable agroecosystems.Agroecology.org
Ecological intensificationUsing ecological principles to design sustainable production systems that are semi-closed systems, with efficient use of inputs and minimizing harm to the environment. Improved genetics and management are utilized that rely on biological processes, to conserve and protect resources while supporting production.CIRAD: Agricultural Research for Development
Sustainable intensificationThe production of more food on a sustainable basis with minimal use of additional land.The Royal Society, Reaping the Benefits Report
Sustainable farming systemsSatisfy human food, feed, and fiber needs, and contribute to biofuel needs; Enhance environmental quality and the resource base; Sustain the economic viability of agriculture; Enhance the quality of life for farmers, farmworkers, and society as a wholeNational Academies of Sciences Report, 2010
 Approaches to agricultural production that try to minimize negative environmental impact. (Source: Petersen & Snapp, 2015)

Sustainable intensification is one of the latest additions to the plethora of approaches, which yields the promise to reconcile increased food production with environmental protection. The concept was brought forward for the first time by Jules Pretty (1997) and centers around techniques that increase yields to cater to the growing population and that provide environmental benefits. Biological techniques include increasing agricultural system diversity through intercropping, agroforestry, or crop-livestock integration, zero tillage farming to reduce soil erosion, precision agriculture for efficient water and nutrient management, integrated pest management, or the use of drought-resistant crops. These can be coupled with intensification techniques such as the use of cover crops, increased crop density, terracing, increased fertilizer efficiency, composting, the use of green manure, or the use of natural enemies to pests.

However, both the terms “sustainability” and “intensification” are not clear-cut and highly context-specific. Practices that are sustainable in an ecological way may not be sustainable in an economic one and what is appropriate in one location may not apply in the same way elsewhere. Another criterion is scale. Are we looking at one or more locations, a landscape, a region, or the globe?

Sustainable intensification of agriculture is a promising concept, but also a contested one, where the concept is easier conceived than applied. Location-specific information can help uncover interlinkages, synergies, and trade-off effects.

Conventional intensification

Business-as-usual scenario with high inputs and high yields

Sustainable intensification

Resource-saving increase in productivity.

Agricultural land use and food production

Let‘s have a look at the current status of agricultural land use.

On the global scale, we may have passed the peak of agricultural land use, the total of arable land that is used to grow crops, and pasture used to raise livestock. As you can see in the graph below, various sources agree that globally, not more land is converted to agricultural land.

Global decoupling of agricultural land and food production? Source: Our World in Data (Ritchie, 2022)

The statistic below shows that we are witnessing a decoupling of food production and land use. Although agricultural land has declined, the world is continuing to grow more food, which is true both for crops and livestock. This means that it is possible to grow more food without taking it away from the environment. However, the issue is much more complex than that. It plays a role in where food is produced, of which type, and for whom. For example, pasturelands have shifted from arid and temperate to tropical regions, which are much richer in biodiversity and carbon. It is also important to note that agricultural land has peaked, but mainly due to shifts in livestock production. Global cropland is still expanding. In addition, how much land is used for agriculture around the world is not uniform.

When discussing the role of agriculture to feed and nourish the world’s population, it is not only about the sheer amount of produced food, but about the food about environmental resources. Sustainable intensification is a paradigm that aims at increased production while conserving and restoring the environment, which is highly contextualized and not straightforward to implement.Implementing and measuring sustainability and agricultural intensification requires critical reflection. Which scales are we looking at? The local, regional, or global scale? And which dimensions, interlinkages, and trade-offs are we considering? Despite streamlining of approaches, there is no singular method of determining agricultural sustainability. However, Earth observation can play a key role by providing spatially explicit information on agricultural land and land management practices, which can inform the discussion.

Sources and further readings

Sources

FAO, “World Food Security: a Reappraisal of the Concepts and Approaches,” Director Generals Report, Rome, 1983.

A. Sen, “Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation.,” Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1981.

A. Shakeel, “‘Food Security: Theorizing the Evolution and Involution of the Concept,’” vol. 21, no. 1, p. 26, 2018.

United Nations (UN), “Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” A/RES/70/1, 2015. [Online]. Available: https://sdgs.un.org/2030agenda

World Bank, “Poverty and Hunger: Issues and Options for Food Security in Developing Countries.,” Washington DC., 1986.

FAO, “An Introduction to the Basic Concepts of Food Security. Food Security Information for Action: Practical Guides.” EC – FAO Food Security Programm, 2008. [Online]. Available: https://www.fao.org/3/al936e/al936e00.pdf

FAO, “EC-FAO Food Security Information for Action Programme: Food Security Concepts and Frameworks- What is Food Security?” 2018.

FAO, “Sustainable food system, Concept and framework.” 2018. [Online]. Available: https://www.fao.org/3/ca2079en/CA2079EN.pdf

Sources and further readings

Sources

Evenson, R. E., & Gollin, D. (2003). Assessing the Impact of the Green Revolution, 1960 to 2000. Science, 300(5620), 758–762. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1078710

Frankema, E. (2014). Africa and the Green Revolution A Global Historical Perspective. NJAS: Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences, 70–71(1), 17–24. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.njas.2014.01.003

Godfray, H. C. J., & Garnett, T. (2014). Food security and sustainable intensification. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 369(1639), 20120273. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2012.0273

Harris, D. R., & Fuller, D. Q. (2014). Agriculture: Definition and Overview. In C. Smith (Hrsg.), Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology (S. 104–113). Springer New York. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-0465-2_64

Kuyper, T. W., & Struik, P. C. (2014). Epilogue: Global food security, rhetoric, and the sustainable intensification debate. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 8, 71–79. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2014.09.004

Our World in Data. (2022). Share of land area used for agriculture, 2018. https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/share-of-land-area-used-for-agriculture?tab=map

Petersen, B., & Snapp, S. (2015). What is sustainable intensification? Views from experts. Land Use Policy, 46, 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landusepol.2015.02.002

Pretty, J., & Bharucha, Z. P. (2014). Sustainable intensification in agricultural systems. Annals of Botany, 114(8), 1571–1596. https://doi.org/10.1093/aob/mcu205

Pretty, J. N. (1997). The sustainable intensification of agriculture. Natural Resources Forum, 21(4), 247–256. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1477-8947.1997.tb00699.xRitchie, H. (2022). After millennia of agricultural expansion, the world has passed ‘peak agricultural land’. Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/peak-agriculture-land

Further reading

Diamond, J. (2002). Evolution, consequences, and future of plant and animal domestication. Nature, 418(6898), 700–707. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature01019

Ritchie, H. (2019). What are the environmental impacts of food and agriculture? Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/env-impacts-of-food