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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
Content courtesy of Springer Nature, terms of use apply. Rights reserved.
... This paper takes as its starting point the observation from Spielman et al. (2011) regarding the characteristics of innovation diffusion and identifies a set of potential bottlenecks to adoption and diffusion of biofortified crops stemming from an emphasis on "top-down" (or siloed) approaches to technology development and diffusion at the expense of "bottom-up" (or integrative) considerations (Connolly-Boutin and Smit 2016;O'Brien et al. 2007). Bernard and Lux (2017) provide a useful distinction between topdown and bottom-up food security strategies, which they argue are the dominant perspectives in contemporary food security strategies. They characterize the top-down approach as the "feed the world sustainably" (sustainable intensification) model subscribed to by many agribusiness stakeholders, versus the "helping the world feed itself" (characterized as the agroecology approach) model subscribed to by many social, food and nutrition advocates, often characterized as a bottom-up approach. ...
... These issues are often viewed as separate in conventional top down siloed approaches to food security. Figure 1 lays out three propositions informed by Spielman et al.'s (2011) characterization of innovation systems in the agricultural context, and by the "top-down" siloed and "bottom-up" integrative distinctions presented by Bernard and Lux (2017). Proposition 1 states: incentives to adopt improved crop varieties are conditioned by behavioral responses and preferences of individual stakeholders. ...
... How can we ensure that food production is achieved sustainably to meet growing global nutritional demands, while concurrently reducing degradation of agricultural landscapes and building resilience to withstand the effects of climate change? Until now, increased food production has been achieved through industrialization, characterized by intensifying cultivation via genetic development of high-yielding varieties, relying on exogenous inputs such as inorganic fertilizers and pesticides, and using consumptive irrigation practices to water increasingly large-scale monocropping systems (Bernard & Lux, 2017). This approach has improved the production, availability, and pricing of food and, to some degree, has reduced hunger and poverty. ...
... Agriculture, through its carbon-and water-intensive practices and contributions to habitat loss, is considered by many to be a leading cause of environmental change (Bernard & Lux, 2017;Pretty & Barucha, 2014). In this context, it stands as one of the greatest threats impeding achievement of the UN SDGs. ...
The development of modern, industrial agriculture and its high input‐high output carbon energy model is rendering agricultural landscapes less resilient. The expected continued increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, in conjunction with declining soil health and biodiversity losses, could make food more expensive to produce. The United Nations has called for global action by establishing 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), four of which are linked to food production and security: Declining biodiversity (SDG#15); loss of ecosystem services and agroecosystem stability due to increasing stress from food production intensification and climate change (SDG#13); declining soil health due to agricultural practices (SDG#2/SDG#6); and dependence on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to maintain high productivity (SDG#2). To achieve these SDG's, the agriculture sector must take a leading role in reversing the many negative environmental trends apparent in today's agricultural landscapes to ensure that they will adapt and be resilient to climate change in 2030 and beyond. This will demand fundamental changes in how we practice agriculture from an environmental standpoint. Here, we present a perspective focused on the implementation of an agrosystem approach which we define to promote regenerative agriculture, an integrative approach that can provide greater resilience to a changing climate, reverse biodiversity loss, and improve soil health; honours Indigenous ways of knowing and a holistic approach to living off and learning from the land; and supports the establishment of emerging circular economies and community well‐being. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.
... The revival of pre-industrial technologies and traditional ecological knowledge may help finding new sustainable solutions, e.g. improved water efficiency based on agroecological practices like cover crops, contour farming, the use of agricultural terraces and locally adapted crops or, as we will explore in this study, the reintroduction of traditional water wheels, known as norias (Altieri and Nicholls, 2012;Bernard and Lux, 2017;IAASTD, 2009;Lomba et al., 2019;Pretty, 2018). ...
... Especially, in water-scare regions like the study area, good water and land management practices can increase irrigation efficiency. Agroecology provides principles and practices for a sustainable management of agroecosystems (Altieri and Nicholls, 2012;Bernard and Lux, 2017;De Leijster et al., 2019;Pretty, 2018). For example, reducing water losses through mulching, cover crops and reduced tillage will increase irrigation efficiency. ...
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... Although more food will be required to be produced, competing interests, such as rapid urbanization, prompt the need for sustainable intensification of agriculture on land that is available [1]. To date, global food systems have managed to reduce hunger by increasing the crop yield of a few crops but have not adequately addressed malnutrition as evidenced by the rise of non-communicable diseases and all forms of malnutrition [2]. The situation has been exacerbated by the lack formally established sources of PGRs, play a crucial role in the collection, preservation, and distribution of genetic materials that are vital to the creation and expansion of variability in breeding programs [18]. ...
... Although more food will be required to be produced, competing interests, such as rapid urbanization, prompt the need for sustainable intensification of agriculture on land that is available [1]. To date, global food systems have managed to reduce hunger by increasing the crop yield of a few crops but have not adequately addressed malnutrition as evidenced by the rise of non-communicable diseases and all forms of malnutrition [2]. The situation has been exacerbated by the lack formally established sources of PGRs, play a crucial role in the collection, preservation, and distribution of genetic materials that are vital to the creation and expansion of variability in breeding programs [18]. ...
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... Agroecologists have, in turn, met each of these claims with counterproposals. A fundamental critique rests on asking whether, a priori, more food needs to be produced or whether the solution to the problem of hunger and malnutrition lies in distributive justice (Bernard and Lux 2017). Agroecologists have tended to reject the premise of global yield mandates, pointing to their origins in classist and racist Malthusian tenets (Chappell 2018) as well as unscientific estimates of future food demand (Tomlinson 2013). ...
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... But despite advances in knowledge and policies , restoration of sustainable and socially-just economic activities have yet to overcome the barriers that would allow them to be adopted at largescales in the region (Bendahan et al., 2018;Valentim, 2016). These systems therefore require a paradigm shift in agriculture and rural development, incorporating principles of equity, local participation and empowerment, food sovereignty, and local marketing systems (Bernard and Lux, 2016). It is important to take into account context specificities through adapted technologies, innovations, and transformation pathways that address the multiple functions of agriculture, forests, and rural activities. ...
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Agroecosystem means improving the agricultural ecosystem by human-induced management of trees, crops, and livestock in any land use system. Resource conservations, soil health management, minimizing environmental footprints, and climate change mitigation are key services through a healthy agroecosystem. Food demands due to burgeoning populations necessitated agricultural land expansion and intensive agricultural practices. Conversion of forest and other land use systems into agricultural land induces land degradation and leads to an increase in environmental footprints. Deforestation and other unsustainable land use practices ensure soil degradation and environmental pollutions. These unscientific and intensive agroecosystem practices lead to GHG emissions into the atmosphere causes carbon footprints. Thus, strategies for enhancing food production along with maintaining environmental health and quality are a smart choice of the modern day. High synthetic inputs and heavy mechanizations ensure higher production but at the cost of environmental health. Agroecosystem land expansion and practices affect other land use systems and related ecological services. These harsh and unscientific practices affect soil-food-climate security at a global scale. Thus, applying ecology-oriented sustainable agroecosystem practices ensures environmental sustainability and ecological stability. A sustainable modeling of agroecosystem will enhance biodiversity that intensifies uncountable ecosystem services. Agriculture, agroforestry, forestry, rangeland, etc. are different land use practices that build our sustainable environment. Applying eco-modeling and sustainable agroecosystem practices ensure higher production and profitability along with a healthy ecosystem. Climate-resilient agroecosystem practices and their ecological modeling enhance plant biomass productivity and soil health maintenance. These practices ensure soil fertility, higher SOC pools, healthy rhizosphere biology, and microbial populations on which entire biodiversity depends. Thus, maintaining a healthy and productive agroecosystem is the pillar of a sustainable environment that ensure a healthier world. In lieu of the above, this chapter represents the potential, perspective, and management of the agroecosystem. A principle and practices of sustainable-based agroecosystem are also discussed. A rigorous discussion is also made on climate-resilient agroecosystem practices and modeling for minimizing carbon footprint to ensure environmental sustainability at a global scale. A bit of discussion on soil-foodclimate security through agroecosystem management makes this chapter more informative for policy makers worldwide.
... Thus, sustainable intensification is a process and goal that makes a balance between economic and ecological performance (Gadanakis et al. 2015). Thus, sustainable-based agroecosystem promotes food productions, enhances biodiversity, intensifies ecosystem services, and mitigates climate change issue (Bernard and Lux 2017). Sustainable intensification-based agroecosystem and related ecosystem services are depicted in Table 7.2. ...
Agroecosystem itself represents a managed ecosystem in agricultural land by human-managed crops and livestock's integration that are highly productive, profitable, and ecologically sustainable. Growing populations and related food demands necessitate intensive practices in agriculture systems. Deforestation and other anthropogenic factors promote forest land conversion into arable lands. Intensive agroecosystem ensures higher crop productions but at the cost of ecosystem and environmental health. High intensive inputs of chemical fertilizers and heavy mechanizations resulted in land degradation and poor soil health. Intensive agroecosystem practices further destroy soil and environmental quality along with poor ecosystem services. In this context, applying sustainable practices in agroecosystem is based on ecological concept that enhances cropsoil productivity in sustainable ways without destroying our environment. Sustainable intensification in agroecosystem enhances biodiversity that intensifies ecosystem services in both tangible (direct) and intangible (indirect) ways. Production services (tangible) include the timber biomass, fuelwood, food products, and several non-wood forest products that are delivered directly from the agroecosystem. Climate change mitigation, soil fertility improvement, watershed management, pest disease control, water regulation, food and nutritional security, etc. come under the protection services. Sustainable intensificationbased agroecosystem enhances climate-resilient and soil health management. Climate-resilient agroecosystem ensures less emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and makes sustainable ecosystem. Conservation agriculture, use of cover crops, and no-tillage practices are key drivers that promote sustainable agroecosystem. An effective policy for scientific research and design must be included to promote sustainable agroecosystem practices that promise food-soilclimate security at global scale. This chapter discusses about ecosystem services through sustainable-based agroecosystem rather than intensive practices. A rigorous discussion is also made on theoretical models of agroecosystem, significance of sustainable agroecosystem, and drivers for sustainable intensification in agroecosystem. Climate- and soil-resilient agroecosystem makes this chapter more comprehensive and informative for academicians, policy makers, and researchers worldwide.
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In the face of recurrent global food crises, institutions of the corporate food regime propose a new Green Revolution coupled with a continuation of neoliberal economic policies. Because these are causes of the crises to begin with, this approach can worsen rather than end hunger. Building a countermovement depends in part on forging strong strategic alliances between agroecology and food sovereignty. Agroecologists face important choices between reformist and radical versions of agroecology. The former version attempts to co-opt agroecology into the Green Revolution; the latter centers agroecology within a politically transformative peasant movement for food sovereignty.
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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.
In light of human population growth, global food security is an escalating concern. To meet increasing demand for food, leading scientists have called for “sustainable intensification”, defined as the process of enhancing agricultural yields with minimal environmental impact and without expanding the existing agricultural land base. We argue that this definition is inadequate to merit the term “sustainable”, because it lacks engagement with established principles that are central to sustainability. Sustainable intensification is likely to fail in improving food security if it continues to focus narrowly on food production ahead of other equally or more important variables that influence food security. Sustainable solutions for food security must be holistic and must address issues such as food accessibility. Wider consideration of issues related to equitable distribution of food and individual empowerment in the intensification decision process (distributive and procedural justice) is needed to put meaning back into the term “sustainable intensification”.