Social-ecological outcomes of agricultural intensification

Our study suggests that the combined social-ecological outcomes of increased agricultural intensification are not as positive as expected.
Social-ecological outcomes of agricultural intensification

By Adrian Martin and Laura Vang Rasmussen

Sustainable intensification of agriculture is seen by many in science and policy as a flagship strategy for helping to meet global social and ecological commitments - such as ending hunger and protecting biodiversity - as laid out in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Paris climate agreement. Our review article published today in Nature Sustainability is the first to synthesize current knowledge on how agricultural intensification affects both the environment and human wellbeing in low and middle-income countries. We found that intensification cannot be considered as a simple “blueprint” for achieving positive social-ecological outcomes as only a minority of existing cases of agricultural intensification are satisfying both social and ecological measures of sustainability.

Agricultural intensification in Northern Laos. Photo is author's own.

Poverty alleviation and environmental conservation are connected endeavors. Yet, many decisions related to agricultural intensification - broadly defined as activities intended to increase either the productivity or profitability of a given tract of agricultural land - are taken without consideration of possible trade-offs between social and ecological outcomes. This is concerning as gains in social outcomes might, for example, happen at the expense of the environment. But what is perhaps even more worrying is that after many years of advocating ‘sustainable intensification’ there appears to be very limited evidence on the conditions that support positive social-ecological outcomes of agricultural intensification. To address this knowledge gap and as part of the UK research programme: Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA), our team conducted a review of all existing studies that contain evidence of both wellbeing and ecosystem service outcomes of agricultural intensification.

When we finished the analysis, which included 60 cases of agricultural intensification, the results were clear — but alarming.  Of all the cases we analyzed, only 10 were classified as leading to ‘win-win outcomes’, defined by positive measures for both human wellbeing and ecosystem services outcomes. In many cases, intensification led to negative outcomes for at least one of the ecosystem services that support sustained productivity over the long term. For example, agricultural intensification may help to increase average local incomes, through higher crop production, but at the cost of biodiversity loss. 

Our analysis presents an important first step towards making these trade-offs explicit and better understanding the challenge of defining and pursuing sustainable intensification. However, the analysis also revealed that, currently, scientific studies rarely measure the range of outcomes necessary to get a full picture of trade-offs and we therefore lack sufficient evidence for whether and how agricultural intensification can contribute to sustaining human wellbeing and ecosystem services. For example, the study of wellbeing was in most cases limited to measures of income, with barely any research that combines ecosystem service outcomes with other wellbeing constituents such as livelihood security, education, health, or secure property rights. This is concerning as wellbeing extends far beyond economic wellbeing and needs to be understood in much more comprehensive ways. We also found that only few studies reported on the distributional equity of wellbeing outcomes. Those that did found that the poorest often are disproportionately harmed by ecosystem service losses and we therefore consider it vital that future research examines equity dimensions of social-ecological outcomes and in particular the pathways to poverty alleviation. 

For us, the next step now is to examine causal relations between gains and losses in different ecosystem services and the multiple dimensions of wellbeing as the bulk of cases did not attend to this. We hope that by better understanding the causal relations underlying social-ecological trade-offs, we can identify how agricultural intensification can contribute to poverty reduction without compromising ecosystems.

The paper in Nature Sustainability is here:

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