Pioneer of sustainable agriculture calls for intensification of farming

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A farmer lifts vegetable at his farm in Klang outside Kuala Lumpur February 12, 2014.
Photo credit: 
Samsul Said / Reuters

In a lecture to the Stanford community Tuesday night, Professor Sir Gordon Conway argued that sustainably intensifying agriculture, especially in Africa, is the only way to feed a growing global population without greatly expanding the amount of land used for farming. Sir Gordon is an agricultural ecologist and was an early pioneer of sustainable agriculture while working in Malaysia in the 1960s. He is now a professor of international development at Imperial College London and the director of Agriculture for Impact, a project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Sir Gordon's lecture, "Can Sustainable Intensification Feed the World?" was the second installment of the Food and Nutrition Policy Symposium Series sponsored by the Center on Food Security and the Environment.

Sir Gordon described three major challenges to ensuring future global food security: food prices are higher and more volatile, one billion people are malnourished (including 1 in 5 children), and rising demand means that 60 to 100 percent more food will be needed to feed the world by 2050. Solving the food security crisis will mean improving both the quantity and the nutrition of food, at stable and affordable prices, in the face of major challenges.

These challenges include factors on the demand side of the global food economy, such as population growth, changing diets, and the use of crops for biofuels. Supply side factors like high fertilizer prices, climate change, and scarcity of land and water put even more pressure on the food system. 

The solution, Sir Gordon said, is agricultural intensification, a set of practices that allow farmers to produce more food with existing land and water. Sustainability is a key component, so that intensification does not also raise greenhouse gas emissions, deplete soil quality, or damage the resilience of farming systems. Sustainable intensification will be especially important in Africa, said Sir Gordon, where population growth and dietary changes will be most dramatic, and where currently crop yields are far below most other areas of the world.

 Farmers, scientists and policymakers can take several approaches to sustainable intensification. An ecological approach includes practices that safeguard environmental resources and reduce farmers’ dependence on chemicals like herbicides and pesticides, such as through organic farming, integrated pest management, agroforestry or conservation agriculture. A genetic intensification approach includes developing better plant varieties, with traits that promote more sustainable agriculture by resisting pests and diseases, or that provide more nutrition. A third approach is socio-economic intensification of agriculture, through the development of farmers’ cooperatives, better links between farmers and markets, and improved access by farmers to insurance and credit.

The goal, Sir Gordon said, is to help farmers “build resilient livelihoods” that will withstand economic and environmental shocks in the coming decades. Good science is important, but strong political leadership, especially within Africa, will be just as crucial.

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