Is it possible to intensify agriculture in drylands?



Sustainable intensification: Is it possible to intensify agriculture in drylands?

We outline three principles for conceptualizing sustainable intensification in dryland systems. In so doing, we recognize the multiple functions of agriculture for development, which include contributions to food security and environmental services, in addition to the more traditional goals of economic growth and poverty reduction. Unless this kind of broader, multi-dimensional understanding can inform efforts toward intensification in drylands, recognizing that in drylands intensification will look very different than it is in so-called “high potential” areas, intensification has little hope of being sustainable.

In a world with a fast-growing population, agricultural intensification is addressed as a key strategy to produce more food without increasing agricultural extensification. In dry areas, where traditional agricultural systems are mainly extensive, the application of standard models of agricultural intensification can have significant environmental and socio-economic implications. In these areas promoting sustainable intensification interventions is as much critical as challenging.  

The authors use concepts from vulnerability and to social-ecological resilience thinking to outline new principles useful to understand what sustainable intensification means in dry areas and how to address it, in particular in traditional extensive systems. The three principles are reported below:

First principle: Intensity and vulnerability are distinct characteristics

According to the authors, the concept of vulnerability can be used as analytical tool for exploring all the dimensions of sustainability in relation to agricultural intensification. Intensification and vulnerability are closely connected, but the relationship between the phenomena is interpreted differently by research strands. Many research bodies for example see vulnerability and intensification as the opposite ends of a single continuum. The resulting concept is that when vulnerability is high, intensification is difficult or impossible. This theory have different implications: in drylands, for example, the intrinsic social and environmental vulnerability could diminish the interest of development actors to promote agricultural intensification in these areas. On the contrary, in areas with high potential for intensification intervention can be applied without considering the possible risks of deepen the vulnerability of the socio-ecological system. The first principle of the authors therefore stresses the importance of distinguishing vulnerability and intensification as two district characteristics of the system. Recognizing these as variables and assessing them with their own factors and indicators is critical to examine the interactions and feedbacks between them and evaluate how these change in space and time.

Read the full article: CGIAR

Published by

Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.