Reflections on Sustainable Intensification discussion


First published here

“It didn’t start well, I got lost. I generally work in places where the grass grows in the middle of the road, which is physically and metaphorically a long distance from the Royal Society’s HQ – there is always a moment of ‘city environment’ re-orientation. Fortunately it went very well from then on, all of the speakers kept well to time, so that we could launch into the Q&A, which comprised of focused and well humoured questions. It seemed that all was going very well, and we all agreed! Or rather we all seemed to be agreeing…

Yes, there was a need to look at the productive capacity of global agriculture (tick),
Yes, the market needed to play a bigger role in the future of agriculture (tick)
Yes, we need to listen to farmers more (tick)
Yes, the CAP is unwieldy (tick) and in need of reform (tick),
Yes, we should use all possible, appropriate, technologies (tick).

That was all agreed, a good evening’s work, off to the drinks reception. Not quite.

Here it comes – look harder at what people said – it wasn’t that straightforward. If you look at the definitions of sustainable intensification carefully in the video, there is some variation, small but significant. When speakers mentioned the ‘market’, that word clearly meant different things to different people. One view was quite different from being more attentive to the needs of a farm business – which are ultimately shaped by the needs of the family that owns the farm or discussions of food sovereignty, but looked to a liberalization of the market. Land being ‘released’ to free up the development of the market is the opposite to using policy to secure family farmers.

Then there is the argument that some farmers have responded to the challenge of SI already boosting production and protecting the environment, so do they really need new genetic technology? Genomics has sucked up considerable sums of public money and the effective application of this knowledge as technology remains somewhere on the horizon, whilst the private implementation of these technologies have rendered the food system in two. We could all agree that food waste is irrational, except when the mask slipped and I had to make the argument that food waste is functional for the food industry. How could they manage if they sold a third less? If we think about food waste (over purchasing) in tandem with obesity (over eating) the food business is about selling food, not the rational and equitable distribution of it.

If we teased more at the areas of agreement then I think it would be apparent that we agreed less on the detail and a lot more on over the overarching questions. Why? Well, both ‘sustainable’ and ‘intensification’ are fairly vague words before they are strung together, with much room for interpretation. They act as a banner to signal that questions of food production are important, questions of environmental damage, co-production and restitution are important, that food has the power of conviviality and divisiveness, often simultaneously realised, and so should be handled with care by policy makers.

Therefore the panel could agree on the starting point, but if you watch the video you can also see that by probing at the details, often it is only the starting point that the speakers agreed upon. Where we are going, why, who is in charge and who should be in charge are controversies we’ll have to contest and debate another day.”


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