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How to feed the world sustainably: an overview of the discourse on agroecology and sustainable intensification

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In order to combat hunger and feed a growing world population, adapt to climate change and reduce environmental impacts of unsustainable farming practices, the need for a paradigm shift in agriculture has increasingly been expressed over the past decades. Different approaches are widely discussed which often leads to controversial debates among actors from governments, science, international organisations, NGOs and the private sector. Following the approach of a discourse field analysis (Jahn and Lux in Problemorientierte Diskursfeldanalyse—neue Methoden und Anwendungsmöglichkeiten. ISOE-Studientexte 15, Frankfurt/Main, 2009), an overview over the discourse on agroecology and sustainable intensification will be presented. Three issues that are frequently raised in this discourse will be looked at more closely: whether—and if so how much—more food needs to be produced to meet the future demand, how productivity ought to be increased and how agroecology can scale up.
How to feed the world sustainably: an overview of the discourse
on agroecology and sustainable intensification
Barbara Bernard
Alexandra Lux
Received: 1 June 2015 / Accepted: 9 July 2016 / Published online: 27 July 2016
Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016
Abstract In order to combat hunger and feed a growing
world population, adapt to climate change and reduce
environmental impacts of unsustainable farming practices,
the need for a paradigm shift in agriculture has increasingly
been expressed over the past decades. Different approaches
are widely discussed which often leads to controversial
debates among actors from governments, science, interna-
tional organisations, NGOs and the private sector. Fol-
lowing the approach of a discourse field analysis (Jahn and
Lux in Problemorientierte Diskursfeldanalyse—neue
Methoden und Anwendungsmo
¨glichkeiten. ISOE-Studien-
texte 15, Frankfurt/Main, 2009), an overview over the
discourse on agroecology and sustainable intensification
will be presented. Three issues that are frequently raised in
this discourse will be looked at more closely: whether—
and if so how much—more food needs to be produced to
meet the future demand, how productivity ought to be
increased and how agroecology can scale up.
Keywords Agroecology Discourse field analysis Food
security Food sovereignty Sustainable intensification
Introduction: challenges in agriculture
and the calls for a paradigm shift
In the Twentieth century, agriculture saw drastic increases
in productivity: after the Second World War, North
America and Europe considerably increased their yields
per ha, from the late 1960s onwards, the Green Revolution
resulted in an unprecedented agricultural growth in large
parts of Asia and Latin America (Pretty 2008; IFPRI 2002).
Globally, yields rose by 150–200 % between 1960 and
2010—taking into account marked regional differences
(FAO 2011; IAASTD 2009). This was primarily achieved
by intensifying cultivation (e.g. development of high-
yielding varieties, greater use of inorganic fertilisers, pes-
ticides and irrigation, large-scale monocropping systems).
What is frequently referred to as the industrialisation of
agriculture, allowed for a greater productivity, while
workload decreased and food prices declined (IFPRI 2002;
Gliessman 2015). Rates in aggregate food production
generally exceeded population growth, and the Green
Revolution is frequently assigned as having an important
role in the reduction in hunger and poverty in those
countries where its technologies were applied (IFPRI
However, despite this enormous growth in productivity,
it did not succeed in achieving food security on a global
level (Pretty et al. 2006; IAASTD 2009), nor on a local
level: The poorer part of the rural population benefitted less
than the wealthier part, and women benefitted less than
men (FAO 1997). Per definition, ‘‘[f]ood security exists
when all people, at all times, have physical and economic
access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets
their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and
healthy life’’ (World Food Summit 1996). According to the
latest Food and Agriculture Organization of the United
&Barbara Bernard
Institute for Social-Ecological Research ISOE, Hamburger
Allee 45, 60486 Frankfurt/Main, Germany
Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre BiK-F,
Georg-Voigt-Straße 14-16, 60325 Frankfurt/Main, Germany
Reg Environ Change (2017) 17:1279–1290
DOI 10.1007/s10113-016-1027-y
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Providing the theoretical and conceptual framework for this continually evolving field, Agroecology: The Ecology of Sustainable Food Systems, Second Edition explores environmental factors and complexities affecting agricultural crops and animals. Completely revised, updated, and reworked, the second edition contains new data, new readings, new issues and case studies, and new options. It includes two completely new chapters, one on the role of livestock animals in agroecosystems and one on the cultural and community aspects of sustainable food systems.The author clearly delineates the importance of using an ecosystem framework for determining if a particular agricultural practice, input, or management decision contributes or detracts from sustainability. He explains how the framework provides the ecological basis for the functioning of the chosen management strategy over the long-term. He also examines system level interactions, stressing the need for understanding the emergent qualities of populations, communities, and ecosystems and their roles in sustainable agriculture. Using examples of farming systems in a broad array of ecological conditions, the book demonstrates how to use an ecosystem approach to design and manage agroecosystems for sustainability.
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