17 December 2018

Agricultural intensification a house of cards: challenging the current agricultural system

Credit: Kristel Runhaar

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”.

Jerry van Dijk. Credit: Jarno Verhoef

Challenging the current agricultural system

Through his work van Dijk seeks to challenge the current system of bulk production and low prices. This means putting pressure on the current, unsustainable ways of working, while empowering grassroots organisations to develop alternative agriculture systems.

“With the WINK project we are building a database for nature-inclusive/agro-ecological farming. For farmers to make the change we need knowledge on how to apply sustainable farming techniques. This means numbers on expected production levels of these new agricultural systems to support business cases. We must build from scratch the same infrastructure and support that’s in place for conventional farming”. The data also needs to be authoritative, adds van Dijk. Farmers should be able to say to their bank “The WINK shows I will make a profit in two years, so lend me the money”.

We must build from scratch the same infrastructure and support that’s in place for conventional farming.
Assistant Professor of Restoration Ecology and Biodiversity Conservation
Giuseppe Feola. Credit: Jischana Huitaca Foundation

Unlocking the potential of radical civil society initiatives

Social scientist Giuseppe Feola is also studying how civil society initiatives in agriculture challenge the current system. He was recently awarded both an NWO Vidi and ERC Starting Grant for the research programme UNMAKING. UNMAKING seeks to understand the potential of radical civil society initiatives in agriculture to transform society toward sustainability.

“Successful sustainable alternatives are often expected to be able to outcompete conventional farming. But it might not work like this. Worldviews and institutions that keep us locked into conventional agriculture may have to be actively disrupted. I want to understand if and how radical civil society initiatives like community-supported agriculture and permaculture can disrupt, or ‘unmake’ such environmentally damaging institutions and practices that are deeply ingrained in capitalist societies”.

I want to understand if and how radical civil society initiatives can disrupt, or ‘unmake’ environmentally damaging institutions and practices that are deeply ingrained in capitalist societies.
Assistant Professor of Social Change for Sustainability
Hens Runhaar. Credit: Kristel Runhaar

Involvement of all stakeholders key

Governance researcher Professor Hens Runhaar approaches the transformation to sustainable agriculture from the perspective of the stakeholders. The agricultural system is made up of farmers, agri-food businesses, banks, governments, NGOs and other actors who are all trying to achieve their own often quite different objectives.

“More sustainable agriculture means all actors, not only farmers, should contribute to a transformation of agricultural practices,” says Runhaar. “This will not happen automatically, particularly when sustainable farming does not align with the core interests of the most powerful groups”.

More sustainable agriculture means all actors, not only farmers, should contribute to a transformation of agricultural practices.
Professor of Governance of Nature and Biodiversity

Professor Runhaar aims to get a better understanding of why agricultural practices are often unsustainable, why some farmers do adopt sustainable practices and why it is so difficult to change conventional agriculture. In a recent paper he found that if Dutch farmers could decide, many would implement more conservation activities than they currently do. Instead they feel locked into a system that forces further intensification.

Huge potential of Global South

According to van Dijk, the Global South has huge potential to increase its food production without the need to switch to large scale industrial agriculture. “The majority of the world’s farmers are subsistence farmers. They could double what they produce without harming environment and climate.” But how do we make sure this is done in a just way?

Koen Beumer. Credit:

Responsible development of new agricultural technologies

Innovation scholar Koen Beumer studies the societal implications of emerging agricultural technologies, especially in developing countries.

“Technologies are often developed with a particular purpose in mind, like sustainability or increasing crop productivity. But once they enter the real world they can have other consequences as well. Green Revolution technologies were highly successful in increasing agricultural yields, but in some cases also led to more economic inequality. My research seeks to identify these other potential implications in the early stages of technology development.”

Credit: Giuseppe Feola

Social and economic change in agricultural communities

Giuseppe Feola is also interested in social and economic change in the Global South. Peasant communities in poorer countries struggle with the combined effects of climate change and market liberalization.

“Adaptation to such challenges is usually approached as a techno-scientific problem,” explains Feola. “But really these are cultural, social and political problems.”

“In the Colombian Andes I study peasant communities facing neoliberal economic models of development like commercial agriculture, mining and urban expansion. Looking at the interactions of different social groups (farmers, miners, social movements), their visions and their attempts to influence local development, I am interested in how and under which circumstances agricultural communities can thrive in rapidly changing rural and rural-urban fringe contexts”.

A changing agricultural landscape

Back in the Netherlands, Jerry van Dijk stresses the role of researchers in influencing public opinion and policy. Marko Hekkert, René Verburg and Hens Runhaar and van Dijk are all heavily involved in the university-wide Future Food research hub. They recently sat down to give their input into the vision to the Ministry of Agriculture. “Change is happening rapidly now,” van Dijk reflects. “Now the Ministry of Agriculture won’t stop talking about sustainability transitions”.