Four years on from the Royal Society’s Reaping the Benefits report, the term ‘sustainable intensification’ is gaining increasing political momentum. The following year the Government Office for Science adopted the term extensively in their ‘Future of Food and Farming’ report. In light of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reforms due later this year, ‘sustainable intensification’ has become an important buzzword.

But what does it actually mean? I have been tasked with summarising it in no more than 200 words. Gulp.



Let’s take intensification first. This involves increasing the productivity (yields), intensity (e.g. inter-planting crops) and financial profit from a single, unchanged (same size) land area. This is done through the use of technology, fertiliser and new crop varieties. The primary aim: to achieve efficient conversion of solar energy into chemical energy for human consumption. Note ‘The Green Revolution’ (we are pretty good at this part), and intensive livestock farming (morally arguable).

However, sustainable intensification is also, well, sustainable. This increase in productivity should ideally sit happily within Rockstrom’s planetary boundaries. Currently not the case. Many agricultural practices are inherently unsustainable: a reliance on fossil fuels, fertilisers resulting in environmental pollution, greenhouse gas emissions (methane) etc. Combined, this reduces biodiversity and ecosystem services, thus destroying the ecological functions of our planet upon which all agriculture inherently depends (eeek).

But we need to eat!?

So how do we increase productivity, while reducing these negative environmental impacts? Sounds tricky. It is. And it involves lots of science.  Meet ‘sustainable intensification’.


Keep a close eye on our policy blog for more posts on this subject. We will also be holding a PolicyLab event on this topic in the near future. If you would be interested in attending policy related events please sign up to our email alerts.

Our ‘Reaping the Benefits’ report, published in October 2009, covers this subject in detail.

  • Indeed some tough stuff ahead. Pity about the hangup some have with the words – the for first overused & the second vilified! I sense that a land sharing;model might manifest itself at some point as we abandon uplands to biodiversity and intensify lowlands for food.

    At some point the consumer must engage or do they just supermarket sweep and give money to a conservation NGO to assuage their poor consumption?
    Interesting times!