Global assessment of agricultural system redesign

Major new global assessment, published in the prestigious journal Nature Sustainability, shows agricultural sustainability is delivering increases in productivity and improving the environment, and has spread to 163 million farms worldwide

The paper lead authors come from 17 universities and research institutes in the UK (Universities of Essex, Leeds, Anglia Ruskin, East Anglia, Oxford, Sussex, York, Nottingham, Aberdeen and Nic Lampkin from the Organic Research Centre), the USA (Kansas State, Washington State, Iowa State, Ohio State), Sweden (Stockholm Resilience Centre), Ethiopia (International Livestock Research Institute) and New Zealand (Lincoln University)

The focus of the assessment was on the Sustainable Intensification of Agriculture, terms that once were held as incompatible, but are now delivering considerable benefits to farmers and environments. The 17 lead authors show that the sustainable intensification (SI) of agricultural systems offers synergistic opportunities for the co-production of agricultural and natural capital outcomes. A model of change is proposed, suggesting that that Efficiency and Substitution can be helpful steps towards Sustainable Intensification, but the need now is for agricultural system Redesign. This is essential to deliver optimum outcomes as ecological and economic conditions change. There is no end point for sustainability – continuous change as part of new agricultural knowledge economies will be essential to continue to feed the world population of 7.6 billion.

The research assesses global progress towards SI by farms and hectares for integrated pest management, conservation agriculture, integrated crop and biodiversity, pasture and forage systems, trees and agroforestry, irrigation management, and on small and patch systems.

Data from 47 large SI initiatives is presented (each with more than 10,000 farms or hectares), and this shows that some 163 million farms (29% of all worldwide) have crossed a redesign threshold, with forms of SI now being practised on 453Mha of agricultural land (9% of worldwide total). Of this area, 53Mha are certified organic. The greatest advances have been made in developing countries. The research shows that the expansion of SI has begun to occur at scale across a wide range of agroecosystems. The benefits of both scientific and farmer input into technologies and practices that combine crops and animals with appropriate agro-ecological and agronomic management are increasingly evident.

The authors conclude that SI may be approaching a tipping point where it could be transformative. However, in most countries state policies for Sustainable Intensification still remain poorly developed or are counter-productive.

Pretty J, Benton TG, Bharucha ZP, Dicks LV, Flora CB, Godfray HCJ, Goulson D, Hartley S, Lampkin N, Morris C, Pierzynski G, Prasad PVV, Reganold J, Rockström J, Smith P, Thorne P, Wratten S (2018) Global assessment of agricultural system redesign for sustainable intensification. Nature Sustainability, 1 (8), 441-446.

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