Science and Technology's Role in Sustainable Intensification

Professor Charles Godfray, University of Oxford, recently delivered the fourth lecture in the Teagasc/RDS lectures series on 'Sustainable Intensification and the Role of Science and Technology in meeting the Food Security Challenge'. Dr Lance O'Brien summarises the main points in the publication, 'TResearch'.
calendar icon 27 December 2013
clock icon 7 minute read

Author, Dr Lance O’Brien
Head, Foresight and Strategy Development, Teagasc Head Office, Oak Park, Co. Carlow

Professor Charles Godfray, University of Oxford, set the context for the fourth Teagasc/RDS lecture by pointing to the widespread agreement that global food production will have to increase substantially in the coming years and decades in order to meet the demand of a growing global population. On the supply side, there is increased competition for land, water, energy and other inputs into food production. Climate change poses challenges to agriculture, particularly in developing countries, and many farming practices damage the environment and are a major source of greenhouse gases.

On the basis of these factors, he argued that the existing food system is not sustainable. Without change, the global food system will continue to degrade the environment and compromise the world’s capacity to produce food in the future, as well as contributing to climate change and the destruction of biodiversity.

Professor Charles Godfray, University of Oxford, delivers the fourth lecture in the Teagasc/RDS lectures on 'Sustainable Intensification and the Role of Science and Technology in Meeting the Food Security Challenge'.

Sustainable Intensification

In light of these consequences, Professor Godfray contended that the additional food needed will have to be produced using a policy known as sustainable intensification. Sustainable intensification does not imply a business-as-usual approach to food production tempered by marginal enhancements in sustainability. Rather, as he argued, it demands radical rethinking of food production to achieve major reductions in adverse environmental impacts.

Professor Godfray acknowledged that this policy has attracted criticism in some quarters as being either too narrowly focused on food production or as representing a contradiction in terms. Accordingly, he outlined a broader framework of priority actions within which to view sustainable intensification.

Firstly, sustainable intensification implies the need to increase overall food production. Overall increases in production are essential because no one approach to address food insecurity on its own will address future needs, given the inevitability of policy failures, as well as the time lags in the demand-and-supply dynamics of the food system. Immediate yield increases are needed in many low-income countries; elsewhere, the immediate objective may not necessarily be to increase yields but to develop the potential to respond to future increases in demand.

Secondly, increased production must be met through higher yields because increasing the area of land in agriculture carries major environmental costs. Although suitable land for agriculture exists in certain parts of the world, it comprises, in the main, forests, wetlands, or grasslands. Their conversion would greatly increase greenhouse gas emissions and the loss of biodiversity and important ecosystem services.

Thirdly, all responses must be environmentally sustainable by minimising the use of fertilizers and pesticides and generating lower emissions of greenhouse gases. At the same time, they must result in the production of a variety of valued public goods, such as clean water, carbon sequestration, flood protection and landscape amenity value.

Supply-side actions alone will not resolve the challenge of future food needs. On the demand side, actions are needed to reduce population growth rates and to curb high levels of per-capita consumption, particularly for resource-intensive foods. The food system also needs to become more efficient by improving governance and reducing food losses and waste throughout the food chain. No one of these actions on its own is able to achieve sustainability and security in the food system. Sustainable intensification should, therefore, be seen not as a substitute for, but as a complement to, these other necessary measures.

Role of Science and Technology

Sustainable intensification is not defined in terms of any specific technologies or farming practices. The most important goal is that if a technology results in efficient food production without adverse ecological consequences, then it is likely to contribute to the system’s sustainability. Sustainable agricultural systems make the best of both crop varieties and livestock breeds and their agro-ecological and agronomic management.

Much can be done with existing knowledge. The application of existing knowledge and technology has very substantial potential to increase crop yields, particularly in those countries characterised by significant yield gaps. Above all, there is a need to ensure that existing information and technologies are transmitted to farmers through the operation of efficient and effective extension services.

Biological science, especially publicly-funded science, will have a vital role in ensuring the sustainable intensification of food production. Research to improve the production efficiency and profitability in crop and livestock farming is of key importance. Field-level, eco-physiological research on various crops and livestock is urgently required in anticipation of the possible impacts of global warming and climate change. New crop varieties and animal breeds capable of producing high yields under extreme climatic conditions must be developed.

Significant increases in productivity and sustainability can be achieved by targeted research in modern crop and animal management, often known as agro-ecology. Research into better management is as important as research into plant and animal genetics. The long-established disciplines of agronomy, soil science and animal husbandry need to be revitalised in order to address the challenge of integrating sustainability into agricultural systems much more explicitly.

New science and technology are also needed to raise the limits of sustainable production and address new threats. Professor Godfray argued that there is an urgent need to reverse the long-term decline in investment in agricultural science with a view to:

  • producing more food efficiently and sustainably
  • securing ecosystem services
  • keeping pace with evolving threats such as the emergence of new and more virulent pests and diseases
  • addressing new challenges, such as the development of new varieties of crops that are resistant to increased drought, flooding and salinity arising from climate change, and
  • meeting the particular needs of the world’s poorest communities.

In this regard, he also mentioned some more revolutionary advances, such as the development of perennial grain crops, the introduction of nitrogen fixation into non-legume crops, and re-engineering the photosynthetic pathways of different plants.

In conclusion, Professor Godfray stated that the world will need a multifaceted research portfolio that helps build capacity in modern biotechnology and other platform technologies, but also strengthens capacity in traditional crop and animal sciences and technologies, as well as embracing traditional local technologies.

Evidence from a wide range of studies indicates that no single approach is capable of delivering sustainable, resilient, high levels of productivity, and value. A broad perspective that encompasses the whole food system is needed and a careful blend of approaches will therefore be required. This should include biotechnology, but also areas of science such as agronomy and agro-ecology that have received less investment in recent years.

Moreover, these will need to be accompanied by radically new agendas aimed at reducing resource-intensive consumption and food waste and improving governance, efficiency and resilience of the food system, added Professor Godfray.

Professor Charles Godfray is Hope Professor of Zoology at Jesus College, Oxford and Director of Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food.

Further Reading

You can view the lecture is available to view on the TeagascMedia YouTube channel by clicking here.

December 2013

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