Jonathan Mokshell is a postdoctoral agri-food economist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia and an associate research fellow at the German Development Institute (DIE) in Bonn, Germany.
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In both developed and developing countries, policy stakeholders are tussling with the question of whether to promote agroecological intensification or sustainable agricultural intensification to deal with the multiple burden of a growing population, a changing climate, environmental degradation, and a precarious food and nutrition security situation. This has nurtured intense debates and created an impasse among policy actors. Blended sustainability could be a way out.

Differences in opinions are inherent in all debates. Exchanging differing views can be healthy as it may give birth to new knowledge and even inspire ideas to solve real-world problems. But it can also be unhealthy. This happens when ideologies get in the way of a resolution to an important issue.

Defining agroecological and sustainable agriculture intensification

The debate between the two sustainable agriculture approaches, i.e. agroecological intensification (AEI) and sustainable agricultural intensification (SAI), has by all accounts reached an impasse. Proponents from both sides avow that their respective approaches offer the most appropriate, socially acceptable, economically viable and environmentally friendly solution to nourishing the 8.5 billion people that the world is expected to have by 2030 – the deadline of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Existing literature has viewed AEI and SAI as two pathways to agricultural sustainability that are polar opposites. AEI refers to the application of ecological science to the study, design, and management of sustainable agriculture. Farmers’ knowledge and experimentation provide the bases for agroecological approaches. AEI, which has strong support from non-governmental organisations, is all about letting nature take its course by harnessing the potential of agriculture and ecological processes to improve agricultural yields. So fertilisers or genetically improved crop varieties are a no-no.

SAI, meanwhile, is essentially the opposite, although its main proposition is to use inputs without waste. SAI entails “intensification using natural, social and human capital assets, combined with the use of best available technologies and inputs that minimize or eliminate harm to the environment”. Private agrochemical organisations largely support this approach.

Points of debate

There are several points of debate around AEI and SAI. Tolerance for genetic engineering in SAI and its unacceptability in AEI is one, and is at the centre of public and scientific discourses, a trend that will continue for the foreseeable future.

Another is the issue of land sharing versus land sparing.

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