With promises to feed the world, agricultural intensification comes at a great cost to the environment and climate. Sustainable agriculture may be the necessary alternative, but its implementation is not without challenges. Here is a snapshot of how researchers from the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development at Utrecht University are cutting across traditional research group lines to address this from varied perspectives.
The 2030 Agenda and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have brought the urgency of feeding the world’s growing population back into the spotlight. At stake are not only SDG 15 (Life on Land), but also SDGs 2 (Zero Hunger), 12 (Responsible Production and Consumption), 13 (Climate Action) and 3 (Good Health and Well-Being).
Agricultural intensification a house of cards
The urgency of achieving these goals by 2030 is often used to support agricultural intensification. However, the intensification argument is a house of cards, says ecologist Jerry van Dijk. “It’s true that intensification of agriculture produces a lot of food, but this comes at a great cost to the environment and is highly vulnerable to climate change”. Added to this, most conventional farmers earn very little - dairy in the Netherlands is currently running at a loss. So why do we keep producing food unsustainably?
No widely accepted sustainable alternatives
“There are so many tools that allow farmers to work more sustainably,” says van Dijk. “Many have been around for decades.” But there is often a cost to production. Livestock numbers might be lower, crops won’t grow as well and farms may have to diversify. This is when farmers run into problems. Current world markets requires bulk production at the lowest costs possible. And banks are not interested because they want hard proof that sustainable agriculture is profitable. “It’s extremely difficult to step out of this model because it’s the only one we have. There are no widely accepted alternatives”.