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.
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.
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. The former focuses on less intensive production techniques to maintain biodiversity throughout the production process, while the latter involves setting aside some land for intensive production and some for biodiversity preservation and conservation. SAI proponents believe land sharing will lead to extensification, which can have a potential negative impact on biodiversity and contribute to climate change. AEI proponents, meanwhile, think that land sparing, which favours the use of agrochemical and modern technology to increase production, will cause damage to the environment and affect soil biota.
Proponents of SAI criticise the concept of AEI as being synonymous with a “do-nothing approach”, low external input use and “antiscience”, as well as for bringing potentially negative consequences on efforts to end hunger and achieve food security. Opponents dub the SAI approach as business as usual, high external input use and an “oxymoron”.
Apart from the literature documentation of the intense debates between advocates of the two sustainable agriculture methods, I’ve also personally witnessed this in agricultural policy processes, in both formal and informal settings. It’s not surprising. Humans, by nature, tend to put themselves in certain camps. And when we subscribe to a particular camp, we stick to our coalitions, and we do the best we can to justify our positions with narratives.
Both AEI and SAI have trade-offs and potential synergies on the economic, social and ecological dimensions of sustainability; not recognising these is what makes these sustainable agriculture approaches a highly controversial topic in both scientific and policy arenas.
For instance, increasing productivity through land sparing might have economic (e.g. increased income), food security and social benefits (e.g. improved livelihood), but it might also have some environmental consequences (e.g. excessive use of inorganic chemicals). Similarly, increasing production through land sharing might have some social (e.g. improved livelihood) and environmental benefits (e.g. improved land management and biodiversity protection), but it could have environmental (e.g. land extensification) and economic implications (e.g. reduction in income in the initial phase). These examples suggest some trade-offs among the different dimensions of agricultural sustainability and have a potential impact on a farmer’s decision to adopt an AEI pathway (e.g. organic agriculture practices), an SAI pathway (e.g. climate-smart agriculture practices), or a blend of the two (e.g. a system of rice intensification and conservation agriculture practices).
Profitability and ideological beliefs have also influenced the difference in opinions. Standards, labour, price, geo-politics and biophysical characteristics likewise increase the complexity of the debate, making it practically impossible to agree on a single set of sustainable agricultural practices. Further, there are political-economic issues that could explain the support for SAI by private sector actors with an interest in upholding input-dependent agriculture. Compared to AEI, SAI concepts can be recast into language that seeks to optimise (rather than reject) the use of fertiliser and agrochemicals.
Considering these difference, we need a way forward if we want to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by their deadline. The standoff needs to end – now. If the opposing sides of the sustainable agriculture debate open their minds and engage, they will find that they actually have some things in common. There are practices that suit both realms, and some practices are location-specific. These include mechanisation (e.g. tillage and mechanical seeding), drip irrigation, micro-dosing and application of compost at the time of sowing.
So there’s a middle ground. Blended sustainability is how I term it. The blended sustainability concept carries the idea of examining the dimensions of the different farming pathways and practices, and aligning the strengths and weaknesses of AEI and SAI pathways to harness synergies and reduce tradeoffs. It involves employing farming practices based on the social, economic, and ecological conditions of a particular area, and on the perception of the two approaches in that location.
For example, modern technologies in the SAI pathway can be promoted to benefit small farms economically, while the ecological intensification practices in AEI can be adopted to make farming systems more ecologically sustainable. With current technological advancements, one cannot ignore the interaction between modern technology (e.g. precision farming, seeding with drones) and indigenous knowledge (e.g. onion leaves for controlling striga weed) and their role in promoting sustainable agriculture. Such interaction and blending of farming practices is already taking place in both the developed and developing countries.
How people in certain parts of the world define organic farming may also provide a common ground. In some parts of the Western world, use of tractors is fine because labour is scarce. It’s the reverse in others where labour is in abundance.
Blended sustainability, in other words, takes the ideology out of sustainable agriculture. The concept of blending approaches is nothing new and has, in fact, become mainstream in the international development community. Many see blended finance – the combination of public, philanthropic, and commercial funding – for instance, as critical to reaching the targets under the Sustainable Development Goals.
A dozen years can come fast, so this is not the time to bicker over which sustainable agriculture approach is the best. Truth be told, the best could be somewhere in the middle.
Jonathan Mockshell 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. His work focuses on the policies, institutions, markets, and disruptive innovation dimensions of the global food system.