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Sustainable intensification of agriculture: oxymoron or unavoidable imperative?

Volume 11 Number 6 June 8 - July 13 2015

Richard Eckard, Associate Professor in the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Science, who is also Director of the Primary Industries Climate Challenges Centre, explains the challenges faced by both scientists and producers who need to increase food production to feed a hungry planet, while transitioning farming to a sustainable footing.

The global population, currently growing at around 140 people per minute, is predicted to reach 8 billion by 2030, 9.1 billion by 2050 and possibly as high as 14 billion by 2100.

Predictions are that agriculture will need to increase production by between 60 and 80 per cent to meet this rising need by 2050, when an extra 2 billion people will require reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.

And according to a 2009 report from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation the number of food insecure people is estimated between 800 million to 1 billion, with a similar number suffering obesity.

The world’s middle class is also predicted to rise from around 2.5 billion to 4.9 billion over the same period. The need to feed an extra 2 billion people, coupled with the increased demand for higher quality food from the rising middle class presents a range of challenges for humankind.

Firstly, it is the humanitarian challenge to provide nutritional security for the resource-poor, particularly in developing countries.

Secondly, the rising middle class presents a major opportunity for Australian agriculture to meet the rising demand for food in higher value markets.

At the same time we are seeing a steady decline in agricultural productivity and the agricultural resource base.

Some reasons for this include a steady decline in investment in agricultural research and development, as a proportion of agricultural GDP, and an increasingly urbanising population is leading to urban expansion into prime agricultural land.

In more affluent societies rural lifestyle properties are rapidly taking over agricultural land, and even with deforestation, the expansion of agriculture into new areas has plateaued.

And even as available farmland shrinks, significant areas of what remains face some form of degradation, mainly from erosion, soil acidity and soil salinity. The UN Environment Program estimates that 25 per cent of the world’s food production may become lost due to environmental breakdown by 2050.

Short term climate variability – with more frequent and greater extremes – and longer-term climate change both poses a challenge and risk for intensification, and will increase competition for land in more reliable rainfall regions.

And finally the gap between potential and actual production is significant across a large proportion of farms, which provides both a challenge and an opportunity.

These factors combined mean we are left with no other option but to produce more food from less land while reducing soil degradation, use less water and fewer energy-rich inputs, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, all while negotiating a changing climate.

Some have called this unprecedented confluence of pressures the ‘perfect storm’ of food security.
While reducing food wastage is the most obvious action required, 'sustainable intensification' is also emerging as a new paradigm for agriculture to increase production on the existing land area, while also reducing the environmental footprint of food production.

Research over the past 60 years has articulated the agronomy, husbandry, genetics and nutrition required for farmers to substantially increase production.

But although many of the larger gains have been captured, feed, fertiliser and water inputs have reached diminishing returns and new innovations are no longer delivering double-digit returns. Competition for water is increasing, and current nutrient inputs are resulting in unacceptable offsite impacts.

More inputs alone will no longer result in improved efficiency or sustainability.

To some, the term sustainable intensification is an oxymoron, as most agricultural intensification to date has been associated with increased pressure on the environment and natural resource base.

Examples of this include soil erosion and loss, soil carbon decline, nutrient loss into ground water and rivers and greenhouse gas emissions from livestock and nitrogen inputs.

These impacts further degrade the natural resource base, making further intensification targets harder to achieve.

However failure to address the increased production required in conjunction with enhanced ecosystem management would only exacerbate the food security challenge for coming generations.

There is no alternative other than to sustainably intensify agricultural production to meet these dual imperatives.

To paraphrase a famous quotation, problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them. Therefore, translating the theory of sustainable intensification into increased farm productivity and simultaneously, increased ecosystem sustainability, requires new and innovative research.

Sustainable intensification is urgently required in developing countries where a growing portion of the world's population by 2050 will not have reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food, and will need to produce their own food locally to sustain themselves nutritionally and economically.

At the same time, in emerging and industrialised countries the world's rapidly rising middle class (4.9B by 2030) will be expecting higher quality and more nutritious food, increasingly demanding animal-based protein in their diet. This group represents a significant opportunity for farmers in south eastern Australia, as the demand for higher quality, safe and nutritious foods will exceed supply at current rates of production.


Strategic science for sustainable intensification of agriculture
In September 2014 the Primary Industries Climate Challenges Centre (PICC), a collaborative venture between the University of Melbourne and the Victorian Department of Environment and Primary Industries, convened a strategic science think tank event, focused on the 'Sustainable Intensification of Agriculture and what it means for south-eastern Australia.

 Scientists attending were challenged to address the following scenario: 
‘It is now 2050. We are looking back at the past 35 years and identifying the key innovations, research, policies and practices, adopted by industry, that allowed us to increase agricultural productivity, while not increasing our impact on the environment or degrading the natural resource base. In other words, we have achieved Sustainable Intensification.’

Speakers at the think tank event presented their vision for sustainably intensified farms in 2050, and in so doing, identified the priorities for investment to develop the technologies, practices and policy necessary for successful sustainable intensification. These were captured in The Melbourne Statement on Sustainable Intensification of Agriculture.

What would ‘sustainably intensified’ farms look like in 2050?
Input/output efficiency will need to improve on-farm and through the supply chain, particularly water and nutrient use. This includes greater adoption of current technology, to raise the average closer to its potential, but a priority will be innovative research to either improve input efficiency or break the bounds of the current diminishing returns response, for surface water and nitrogen in particular.
Climate ready farming and improved risk management: Farms will need to become climate ready and incorporate greater risk management to address short-term variability, longer-term climate change and price volatility.

Precision electronic technologies will both enable real-time and cost effective decision making, through linking these technologies with predictive models.

Big data: Agriculture will also need a more coordinated framework for managing the masses of data that will be collected by electronic technologies along the supply chain, to enable the effective use of this data.

Credentials: In order to target the high value markets, meet accreditation needs and achieve consistently higher prices, data will be required to quantify food quality, green and clean credentials, and animal welfare standards. This can be delivered through innovative and broader use of data from precision electronic technologies.