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Sustainable agricultural intensification appears in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a key strategy for ending hunger (SDG2) and achieving sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems (SDG15). Yet, it is not clear whether such twin benefits - for both human wellbeing and ecosystems - are actually achieved, especially in low and middle-income countries. The bulk of research on agricultural intensification has a relatively narrow focus on specific subcomponents of either human wellbeing (e.g. income) or ecosystem services (e.g. biodiversity). Only recently has there been a growth in literature exploring outcomes for both well-being and ecosystems. We have synthesised this literature in order to learn from the emerging findings and develop a research and policy agenda to help define and support sustainable intensification
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2018
The research
Sustainable agricultural intensification appears in the United Nations Sustainable
Development Goals (SDGs) as a key strategy for ending hunger (SDG2) and achieving
sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems (SDG15). Yet, it is not clear whether such
twin benefits - for both human wellbeing and ecosystems - are actually achieved,
especially in low and middle-income countries. The bulk of research on agricultural
intensification has a relatively narrow focus on specific subcomponents of either
human wellbeing (e.g. income) or ecosystem services (e.g. biodiversity). Only recently
has there been a growth in literature exploring outcomes for both well-being and
ecosystems. We have synthesised this literature in order to learn from the emerging
findings and develop a research and policy agenda to help define and support sus-
tainable intensification.
Time to rethink sustainable intensification of agriculture
- evidence reveals mostly unsustainable outcomes for
people and nature
Our research
Our research has looked at the combined
outcomes for people and nature of agricultural
intensification (Figure 1). We have done this
by reviewing previous studies published in the
peer reviewed scientific literature that analyse
how agricultural intensification affects both
wellbeing and ecosystem services in low and
middle-income countries. We also discussed
the research results with eighteen expert prac-
titioners working on agricultural intensification
or conservation practices. We used these inter-
views as a validation of our findings by asking
the experts to compare our results with their
own experiences with outcomes of agricultural
intensification.
The findings
Overall, our results show that:
A gricultural intensification seldom leads
to sustainable development: negative
ecosystem service and wellbeing out-
comes are reported at least as frequently
as positive ones.
Negative outcomes for both ecosystem
services and wellbeing are particularly
found in cases where agricultural intensifi-
cation involves a change to monocultures,
especially associated with coffee, shrimp,
maize, and other cash crops, or where it
involves reduced length of fallow periods.
Vulnerable population groups are most
often on the losing end as they often lack
the necessary resources to fully benefit
from intensification and they are often
more vulnerable to the effects of ensuing
environmental degradation.
These key findings were largely corrobo-
rated by expert experience, with similar
distribution of cases on a win-win, lose-
win, lose-lose axis (Figure 2).
Our findings also show that while agricultural
intensification interventions may achieve win-
Key messages
1. Sustainable intensification of agriculture
is seen by many as a flagship strategy for
helping to achieve global food security
whilst avoiding further environmental
impacts. However, the expected ‘win-
win’ outcomes, benefitting both human
wellbeing and ecosystems, are poorly
documented. We therefore analysed how
agricultural intensification affects both
ecosystem services and human wellbeing
in low and middle-income countries.
2. Current forms of agricultural intensifica-
tion typically increase food production,
but seldom improve other facets of well-
being and tend to have negative impacts
on important ecosystem services regulat-
ing water, soil or climate cycles.
3. Intensification efforts tend to favour better-off
farmers at the expense of poorer ones, espe-
cially when it involves a change in crops and a
transition to monoculture farming.
4. Hence, there is an urgent need for re-
search that examines the complex trade-
offs associated with increasing agricultural
production and that provides recommen-
dations for how agricultural intensification
strategies can become genuinely sustain-
able.
Figure 1. The agricultural intensification process
and its possible outcomes. From Martin et al.
(2018).
win outcomes, particularly through interven-
tions with increased inputs such as fertilizer
and pesticides, this tends to occur mainly
when a narrow range of impacts are studied,
typically food production and income-gener-
ation. In many win-lose or lose-lose cases, a
wider range of impacts are considered.
Further, only a few of the reviewed cases
provide evidence that they are contributing
holistically to meeting SDG2 and SDG15. By
beginning to identify the conditions associated
with negative and positive outcomes, we can
point to research and policy agendas that can
support more sustainable agricultural inten-
sification. Importantly, in cases where inten-
sification leads to ecosystem service benefits
beyond short-term food production or to
wellbeing benefits beyond income, a combi-
nation of landscape scale intensification with
reforestation and diversification of agronomic
practices is typically achieved.
Recommendations
It is clear from this synthesis that the global
sustainability agenda urgently requires broader
research and policy approaches that address
the diverse outcomes of agricultural inten-
sification for people and nature in a more
coherent and systematic manner. Failing to do
so would run the risk of intensifying land use
without meeting the full range of sustainability
objectives. Scientifically, we need to better
understand:
1. Which types of intensification efforts and
forms of innovation in design and imple-
mentation can best reconcile complex
social and ecological trade-offs, hence
realising more positive outcomes for both
people and nature;
2. How trade-offs between the wellbeing of
various societal groups and ecosystems
can be identified;
3. How some of the commonly-experienced
unsustainable outcomes can be avoided,
particularly for the poorest social groups
who often suffer the most from loss of
environmental services.
At local, national and global level, policy-mak-
ers and funding agencies should:
1. Be aware that agricultural intensification
efforts are not always beneficial. What
leads to the fulfilment of one sustainable
development goal may lead to negative
impacts on another;
RESULTS FROM LITERATURE REVIEW RESULTS FROM EXPERT INTERVIEWS
Figure 2. shows how the cases of agricultural intensification produce win-win, win-lose, or lose-lose
outcomes for wellbeing and ecosystem services. The dots indicate how each case was interpreted. Left
figures are modified from Rasmussen et al. (2018) and the four panels in the middle show the trade-offs
between different types of ecosystem services and wellbeing
2. Base policy and funding decisions on
agricultural intensification strategies that
have demonstrated (not just hypothesized)
social and ecological win-win outcomes;
3. Increase monitoring of agricultural inten-
sification interventions to fully understand
whether well-intended programmes also
have the desired outcomes. Such data
needs to be made publicly available for
general learning on the outcomes of agri-
cultural interventions.
References
Martin A, Coolsaet B, Corbera E, Dawson N, Fisher J, Franks P, Mertz O, Pascual U, Rasmussen LV, Ryan C. (2018).
Land use intensification: The promise of sustainability and the reality of trade-offs. In: Ecosystem Services and Pov-
erty Alleviation – Trade-offs and Governance. Edited by Schreckenberg, K, Mace, G., Poudyal, M. Routledge. https://
www.taylorfrancis.com/ books/e /9780429016295.
Rasmussen LV, Coolsaet B, Martin A, Mertz O, Pascual U, Corbera E, Dawson N, Fisher JA, Franks P, Ryan C.
(2018). Social-ecological outcomes of agricultural intensification. Nature Sustainabilit y 1(6): 275-282. https://doi.
org/10.1038/s41893-018-0070-8.
More information
This brief was developed by the ESPA funded project: Land-use Intensification in forest-agriculture frontier land-
scapes: effects on ecosystem services and poverty alleviation (ESPA-Frontiers) in September 2018.
Contact: Adrian Mar tin, Adrian.Martin@uea.ac.uk or Ole Mertz, om@ign.ku.dk.
Project members:
Adrian Martin and Neil Dawson, University of East Anglia, United Kingdom
Brendan Coolsaet, University of East Anglia, United Kingdom and Lille Catholic University, France
Casey Ryan and Janet Fisher, University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom
Esteve Corbera, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain
Laura Vang Rasmussen, University of Copenhagen, Denmark and University of British Columbia, Canada
Ole Mertz, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
Phil Franks, International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), United Kingdom
Unai Pascual, Basque Centre for Climate Change (BC3), Ikerbasque Basque Foundation for Science, Spain and
Centre for Development and Environment, University of Bern, Switzerland
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Social-ecological outcomes of agricultural intensification
  • L V Rasmussen
  • B Coolsaet
  • A Martin
  • O Mertz
  • U Pascual
  • E Corbera
  • N Dawson
  • J A Fisher
  • P Franks
  • C Ryan
Rasmussen LV, Coolsaet B, Martin A, Mertz O, Pascual U, Corbera E, Dawson N, Fisher JA, Franks P, Ryan C. (2018). Social-ecological outcomes of agricultural intensification. Nature Sustainability 1(6): 275-282. https://doi. org/10.1038/s41893-018-0070
Contact: Adrian Martin, Adrian.Martin@uea.ac.uk or Ole Mertz, om@ign.ku.dk. Project members: • Adrian Martin and Neil Dawson
  • Casey France
  • Janet Ryan
  • Fisher
This brief was developed by the ESPA funded project: Land-use Intensification in forest-agriculture frontier landscapes: effects on ecosystem services and poverty alleviation (ESPA-Frontiers) in September 2018. Contact: Adrian Martin, Adrian.Martin@uea.ac.uk or Ole Mertz, om@ign.ku.dk. Project members: • Adrian Martin and Neil Dawson, University of East Anglia, United Kingdom • Brendan Coolsaet, University of East Anglia, United Kingdom and Lille Catholic University, France • Casey Ryan and Janet Fisher, University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom • Esteve Corbera, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain • Laura Vang Rasmussen, University of Copenhagen, Denmark and University of British Columbia, Canada • Ole Mertz, University of Copenhagen, Denmark • Phil Franks, International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), United Kingdom • Unai Pascual, Basque Centre for Climate Change (BC3), Ikerbasque Basque Foundation for Science, Spain and Centre for Development and Environment, University of Bern, Switzerland