All commentators agree that food production will have to increase substantially this century to meet the future challenges and demands in the global food system. But there are very different views about how this should best be achieved.
Sustainable agricultural intensification is defined as producing more output from the same area of land, while reducing the negative environmental impacts, and at the same time improving natural resources and the flow of environmental services.
The UK Government Office of Science Foresight project on Global Food and Farming Futures commissioned 40 case studies of existing projects from 20 countries of Africa where sustainable intensification had been developed, promoted or practiced during the last ten years.
A total of 30 of these cases are now available in a special issue of the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability.
Crop yields more than doubled
These case studies showed how agriculture can produce more food and yet do this in ways that improve the environment and rural livelihoods by using techniques such as crop improvements, agroforestry, soil conservation, conservation agriculture, integrated pest management and aquaculture. On average, crop yields more than doubled, and some 10.4 million farmers and their families had benefitted from improvements in farm productivity on nearly 13 million hectares (more than half the size of the UK).
Many of these case examples had common approaches to working with farmers, involving agricultural research, building social infrastructure, and developing new private sector opportunities. In some countries, novel policies and partnerships made a substantial difference to farm, food and environmental outcomes. This research shows that the challenge now is to find ways to scale up the processes so that eventually hundreds of millions of people benefit. This IJAS special issue contributes to that process by setting out the new evidence and indicating the key lessons learned.
Africa at the forefront of a green revolution
Lead editor and member of the Foresight Lead Expert Group, Professor Jules Pretty, of the University of Essex, said:
‘The challenges facing Africa are substantial. Many believe that agriculture across the continent has somehow lagged behind the rest of the world. These papers illustrate that Africa is at the forefront of a new greener revolution. What these projects of sustainable intensification show is that where there is a political and economic domestic recognition that ‘agriculture matters,’ 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.’
Professor Sir John Beddington, Government Chief Scientific Adviser and Head of the Government’s Foresight programme, said
‘The Foresight report published last month clearly identified that the global food system is failing and nothing short of a redesign is urgently needed to feed a predicted 9 billion people healthily and equitably by 2050.’
The report identifies the multiple actions needed and shows the solution is not just to produce more food, or change diets, or eliminate waste, but to balance competing pressures and demands across the food system. These case studies highlight the important role that sustainable intensification can play in food production, and how agriculture can be dynamic and adaptive, with potential financial, social, and human benefits to local communities and national economies.