Social-ecological outcomes of agricultural intensification: Rarely a win-win situation

Related GLP Member: Unai Pascual

Editor's note: The following blog post first appeared on Future Earth's website. We originally hightlighted the paper when it was published in June 2018.

Agricultural intensification may not be the best solution to feed the world’s growing population and achieve sustainable land use in a time of climate change, according to a recent paper in Nature Sustainability.

A team of researchers reviewed 20 years of scientific evidence assessing outcomes on both ecosystem services and human well-being associated with agricultural intensification. They found that agricultural intensification cannot be considered as the sole strategy for achieving positive social-ecological outcomes in low- and middle-income countries, due to its limited focus on food production, often at the expense of other social and ecological outcomes.

Read the full results of this research, “Social-ecological outcomes of agricultural intensification,” in Nature Sustainability. A free version is available here.

Sustainable agricultural intensification is a major agenda item shaping global development efforts, which appears in SDG2 (ending hunger) and SDG15 (achieving sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems). It has been assumed that this practice creates a win-win situation for both human well-being and ecosystems, referring to the land sparing hypothesis: intensifying land use in an existing agricultural area will allow more, currently non-agricultural land, to be conserved. But what these researchers have found through a review of scientific literature, is that there have been few studies on the effects of this practice that measure the impact on both the environment and human well-being.

After this literature review, the authors found that intensification can actually undermine conditions that may be critical for food production, as well as biodiversity, soil formation and water regulation.

Intensification can be counterproductive, especially for people reliant on local ecosystem services. In Bolivia, shifting towards intensive onion production has greatly increased the vulnerability of smallholders to economic hardships, because landscapes with reduced biodiversity trigger plant diseases that are not easy to regulate. In Mexico, increased deforestation, land shortage and resource extraction force traditional farmers to adopt monoculture crops. Not only does this slow down their capacity to attain food security and a steady income, but agrobiodiversity is also severely affected.

Another finding shows that well-being impacts of agricultural intensification often favour wealthier individuals at the expense of poorer ones. For example, in Bangladesh, the production of saltwater shrimp is providing higher profits for investor and land-owners. Meanwhile, poorer residents must deal with the soil salinization caused by this production, affecting rice production and their livelihoods. In Ethiopia, coffee production driven by state enterprises and investors have also proven to negatively impact the well-being of local minority groups that rely on access to ecosystem services to make a living.

There is not enough evidence, according to the new research, to back up the expectation of blanket success for agricultural intensification. In fact, overall negative outcomes are more common when considering more than food production gains, such as biodiversity, ecosystem services, and human well-being.

Author Unai Pascual, Ikerbasque Professor at the Basque Centre for Climate Change, is co-chair of the Future Earth Natural Assets Knowledge-Action Network, a recipient of a Future Earth PEGASuS grant, and a member of the Future Earth ecoSERVICES Scientific Steering Committee. We followed up with him on this research, to further explore the implications of agricultural intensification and what can be done to create a more sustainable, food secure future.

Future Earth: It could be assumed that the intensification of food production in the global south would also improve the livelihoods of people in the region, farmers specifically. However, your research demonstrates that this is not always the case. What has your research uncovered?

Unai Pascual: This research shows that generally agricultural intensification is failing to achieve positive outcomes both in terms of farmers’ well-being and maintaining or enhancing ecosystem services. It also uncovers that while agricultural intensification is generally increasing provision of food and fibre, it is not necessarily improving other well-being constituents associated with employment, health and education, among others. In terms of environmental impacts due to intensification, the study shows that it is generally having negative impacts on biodiversity and other ecosystem services, especially regulating services where intensification involves a transition to monoculture farming. This may put at risk the continued flows of food and fibre in those highly intensified systems in the future.

FE: Your research is the first of its kind to bring together current knowledge on how agricultural intensification jointly affects the environment and human well-being in low- and middle-income countries. What prompted you to focus your attention on this issue in particular?

UP: Intensification of agriculture is seen by many, especially by agricultural and development agencies and policy makers, as a flagship strategy for helping to achieve food security for millions of farmers in the Global South. Given the evidence accumulated over the last decades about the environmental consequences of some intensification processes, the policy discourse now is moving into hoping that so-called sustainable intensification (carefully managed) could also avoid negative environmental impacts. I think that there seems to be a too optimistic or even naïve policy discourse to prioritize agricultural intensification with the expectation of ‘win-win’ outcomes both in terms of well-being and benefiting or at least not harming ecosystems. But such positive social-ecological outcomes remain poorly documented in the scientific literature in the Global South. Thus we cannot say that the dominant policy discourse is based on solid evidence.

FE: A one size fits all approach to sustainable intensification of agriculture is not the way forward to achieving SDG2 (ending hunger) and SDG15 (achieving sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems). What advice do you have for policy makers for meeting these goals simultaneously?

UP: There is an urgent need for research that examines how agricultural intensification can become genuinely sustainable, that is, to transition from win-lose, lose-win and lose-lose to win-win outcomes. But we also have to realize that it may be hard to optimize full bundles of ecosystem services. This is because there is likely to exist complex trade-offs among them given the different management options that exist under a suite of intensification options. Moreover, we should start focusing not only on the availability of ecosystem services, including (but not only) food production, but also on how these services can be accessed by different people. The institutional context, including rights to access land resources, is paramount to translate into potential impacts of intensification (good and bad) on well-being. In fact, a key finding is that the distribution of well-being impacts due to agricultural intensification is uneven, generally favouring better off individuals at the expense of poorer ones. Policy makers should pay more attention to the distribution of good and bads, in terms of impacts on well-being and ecosystems.

FE: In some instances where there were lose-lose scenarios observed for both well-being and ecosystem services, what were the driving factors behind this negative result?

UP: Logically, lose-lose cases are the ones which should be most carefully considered, prevented and mitigated. We find that dual losses for biodiversity and well-being, especially in association with food security, tend to go together. When looking more closely at lose–lose social-ecological outcomes we see that some cases point to a shortage of productive inputs. When intensification increases the need for further inputs and when these are either not available or, more often, not affordable, lose-lose cases are potentially more likely to occur. We also find that intensification involving reduced fallow and crop changes leads to the majority of the lose–lose outcomes.

We suggest two major lose-lose pathways. The first one deals with how agricultural intensification initially leads to reduced well-being for certain social groups and where this in turn negatively affects the ecosystem services on which they depend. An example from Amazonia shows how transitioning to cash-cropping opportunities, amidst a commodity boom in palm oil, has left small-scale farmers with reduced access to land, forcing them to shorten fallows, leading to loss of soil fertility and thus to lower yields. The second pathway involves agricultural intensification negatively affecting ecosystem services, which in turn negatively impacts well-being, with the poorest disproportionately affected. For example, intensification of coffee production in some parts of Ethiopia, driven by investors and state enterprises, has been initially blamed for declining access to several provisioning ecosystem services, negatively affecting the well-being of local minority groups who are more reliant on these services for their livelihoods.

FE: Your research suggests that to achieve sustainable intensification of agricultural land we need a new approach. What approach would you research recommend?

UP: This is a tough question and one that merits a very careful response. First, I can offer a couple of points to rethink what we mean by sustainable intensification. First, most often smallholders struggle to transform from subsistence to commercial farming, and the challenges involved are not well reflected in many (even well-intended) intensification strategies. Sustainable intensification should prioritize making affordable and accessible the critical capital (financial, human and also natural capital) to vulnerable people. And second, lower levels of human development do not necessarily associate with more unsustainable outcomes. Often it is the more powerful social groups that reap the benefits of intensification shifting the burdens of ecosystem degradation on marginalized people, which ultimately makes these people more vulnerable to environmental degradation. In other words, agricultural intensification cannot offer genuine sustainable outcomes without addressing social inequalities. Besides these two aspects, from the limited evidence at hand, the study hints that the agricultural intensification approaches that are more likely to succeed in terms of achieving positive social-ecological outcomes tend to combine landscape-scale intensification with landscape restoration and diversification of agronomic practices.  

FE: What are the next steps to further the work on sustainable development of agricultural intensification?

UP: From a researcher perspective, we need more and better data to improve our understanding of the impacts of intensification as a complex social-ecological phenomenon. Our attempt to synthesize the evidence has relied on various dimensions of well-being and on the ecosystem services approach. I think that well-being, ecosystem services and sustainable development are all useful boundary concepts and that the intersection among the three provide some interesting perspective on agricultural intensification. But at the same time, it must be acknowledged that the notion of well-being is multifaceted and often is dependent on the historical and cultural contexts. Thus, while using generalizable categories helps create a first layer of comparability across cases, contextualization also matters. This requires also interdisciplinary efforts and the integration of different knowledge systems. This is not an easy task but it is one which we should aim for.

I would also argue that the ecosystem services approach provides one way to understand human-nature relations. But as with well-being, there are other ways of understanding and measuring those relations, beyond a stock-flow metaphor of the ecosystem services approach. Interestingly, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), recognizes that there is no one-size-fits-all, especially at a time when a broad diversity of stakeholders, people holding different knowledge systems and values, and belonging to different scientific disciplines need to come together to assess the ways humanity and nature interact. I believe that the new framing around the notion of “Nature’s Contributions to People” promoted by IPBES is a positive step in improving the connection between science and policy to move towards more ecologically sustainable and socially equitable approaches to agricultural intensification.