All commentators now agree that food production worldwide will have to increase substantially in the coming years and decades. But there remain very different views about how this should best be achieved. Some still say agriculture will have to expand into new lands, but the competition for land from other human activities makes this an increasingly unlikely and costly solution, particularly if protecting biodiversity and the public goods provided by natural ecosystems are given higher priority.
Others say food production growth must come through redoubled efforts to repeat the approaches of the Green Revolution; or that agricultural systems should embrace only biotechnology or become solely organic. What is clear is that more will need to be made of existing agricultural land.
Agriculture will, in short, have to be intensified. Traditionally agricultural intensification has been defined in three different ways: increasing yields per hectare, increasing cropping intensity (i.e. two or more crops) per unit of land or other inputs (water), and changing land-use from low-value crops or commodities to those that receive higher market prices.
It is now understood that agriculture can negatively affect the environment through overuse of natural resources as inputs or through their use as a sink for waste and pollution (Dobbs and Pretty, 2004). What has also become clear is that the apparent success of some modern agricultural systems has masked significant negative externalities, with environmental and health problems documented and recently costed for some countries. These environmental costs shift conclusions about which agricultural systems are the most efficient, and suggest that alternative practices and systems which reduce negative externalities should be sought.
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 increasing contributions to natural capital and the flow of environmental services.
A sustainable production system would thus exhibit most or all of the following attributes:
- Utilising crop varieties and livestock breeds with a high ratio of productivity to use of externally- and internally-derived inputs;
- Avoiding the unnecessary use of external inputs;
- Harnessing agro-ecological processes such as nutrient cycling, biological nitrogen fixation, allelopathy, predation and parasitism;
- Minimising use of technologies or practices that have adverse impacts on the environment and human health;
- Making productive use of human capital in the form of knowledge and capacity to adapt and innovate and social capital to resolve common landscape-scale problems;
- Quantifying and minimising the impacts of system management on externalities such as greenhouse gas emissions, clean water, carbon sequestration, biodiversity, and dispersal of pests, pathogens and weeds.
International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability
Jules Pretty is Chief Editor of the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability.
- The top 100 questions of importance to the future of global agriculture. Pretty J, Sutherland W J, and 50 other authors. 2010. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability 8(4), 219–236
- An assessment of the total external costs of UK agriculture. Pretty J N, Brett C, Gee D, Hine R, Mason C F, Morison J I L, Raven H, Rayment M and van der Bijl G. 2000. Agricultural Systems 65 (2), 113-136
- Policy reforms and the external costs of agriculture. Pretty J N, Brett C, Gee D, Hine R E, Mason C F, Morison J I L, Rayment M, van der Bijl G and Dobbs T L. 2001. J Environ Planning & Management 44(2), 263-283
- Social capital and the collective management of resources. Pretty J. 2003. Science 302, 1912-1915
- Food miles and farm costs: The full cost of the British food basket. Pretty, J N, Lang T, Morison J, Ball A S. 2005. Food Policy 30(1), 1-20
- Gender and social capital: the importance of gender differences for the maturity and effectiveness of natural resource management groups. Westerman O, Ashby J and Pretty J. 2005. World Development 33 (11), 1783-1799
- Survey and analysis of labour on organic farms in the UK and Republic of Ireland. Morison J, Hine R and Pretty J. 2005. Int J Agric Sustainability 3(1), 24-43
- Resource-conserving agriculture increases yields in developing countries. Pretty J, NobleA D, BossioD, DixonJ, HineR E, Penning de VriesF W T and MorisonJ I L. 2006. Environmental Science & Technology 3(1), 24-43
- Agricultural sustainability: concepts, principles and evidence. Pretty J. 2008. Phil Trans Royal Society of London B 363 (1491), 447-466
- Multi-year assessment of Unilever’s progress towards agricultural sustainability: indicators, methodology and pilot farm results. Pretty J, G. Smith, K.W.T. Goulding, S.J. Groves, I. Henderson, R.E. Hine, V. King, J. van Oostrum, D.J. Pendlington, J.K. Vis and C. Walter. 2008. International Journal of Agric. Sust. 6, 37-62
- Case study of agri-environment payments. The United Kingdom. Dobbs T and Pretty J. 2008. Ecological Economics 65, 75-775]
- Trends for pesticide use and safer pest management in four African countries. Williamson S, Ball A S and Pretty J. 2008. Crop Protection 27, 1327-1334
- Then and now: Norfolk farmers’ changing relationships and linkages with government agencies during transformations in land management. Hall J and Pretty J. 2008. Journal of Farm Management 13(6), 393-418
- The spread of conservation agriculture: justification, spread and uptake. Kassam A, Friedrich T, Shaxson F and Pretty J. 2009. Int. J Agric Sust 7 (4), 292-320
- Food security: the challenge of feeding 9 billion people. Godfray C, Beddington J R, Crute I R, Haddad L, Lawrence D, Muir J F, Pretty J, Robinson S, Thomas S M and Toulmin C. 2010. Science 327, 812-818
- The role and importance of wild foods in agricultural systems. Bharucha Z and Pretty J. 2010. Phil Trans Royal Society of London B 365, 2913-2926
- Sustainable intensification in African agriculture. Pretty J, Toulmin C and Williams S. 2011. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability 9.1, pp 1-241