Conceptualizing pathways to sustainable agricultural intensification

Related GLP Member: Julian Helfenstein, Vasco Diogo, Matthias Bürgi, Peter Verburg, Franziska Mohr, Niels Debonne, Christian Levers


There is widespread consensus among scientists, policy makers, and practitioners that agriculture should become more sustainable, while maintaining the ability to meet future food demand. However, there are still many diverging views on what sustainable intensification means, and how to get there. In this article, we present a conceptual framework to navigate agricultural intensification pathways. The conceptual framework aligns three research themes central to improving the sustainability of agriculture: (1) What are the social, economic, and environmental trade-offs of alternative agricultural intensification options? (2) How do land managers decide on intensification strategies, and how can the adoption of sustainable practices be made more attractive? (3) How do socio-political, technological, and environmental mega-trends and other drivers of change affect sustainable intensification measures and agricultural landscapes? The framework presented here goes beyond earlier frameworks by considering multiple dimensions of intensity and sustainability, drawing from both natural and social science theories. Also, it operates across spatial and temporal scales, and is outcome-focused while explicitly considering the linkages between decision making processes and sustainability outcomes. We argue that given these novelties the conceptual framework can serve as a blueprint to assess pathways towards sustainable agricultural intensification.


Land use
Ecological intensification
Sustainable agriculture
Agricultural development
Sustainability assessment
Nature's contributions to people
Landscape approach
Decision making processes
Food security