Sustainable Intensification: Closing the Crop Yield Gap

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The world needs to be able to grow more food on the same amount of land. Is sustainable intensification the answer?

The global agriculture sector has a serious problem to solve. The UN’s Food and Agricultureal Organization (FAO) puts it bluntly: “If global population and food consumption trends continue, by 2050 the world will need 60 percent more food than is available today.” But, according to the FAO, 12 million hectares of arable soil disappear every year around the world. If more isn’t done to reverse course, we have only 60 seasons of good soil left.

The only viable option, according to the FAO, is to make agriculture sustainable. Promoting sustainable agriculture is at the center of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a global development program launched in September 2015. For the FAO, sustainable agriculture isn’t just about alleviating farming’s adverse effects on the environment; it’s a key part of the UN’s overall development goals and includes improving the economic and social well-being of those who farm. (See “The 2030 Target.”)

To that end, the FAO promotes what’s known as sustainable intensification of agriculture—the art and science of producing more food on the same amount of land, without negatively affecting the environment. The method, according to the FAO, “looks at whole landscapes, territories, and ecosystems to optimize resource utilization and management.” But can this kind of sustainable agriculture make the necessary difference in agriculture’s efforts to feed the world?

Sustainable progress

“Sustainability isn’t just about productivity and the environment,” says John Reganold, Regents Professor of Soil Science and Agroecology at Washington State University. “It’s also about economic sustainability. Are you making money, are you spending too much on your inputs, and so on—as well as social well-being: Are you paying your workers a fair wage? Does your farm benefit the community? Over the past 40 or 50 years, we’ve concentrated on only one of the four main sustainability goals—production. But all of the factors must be taken into account if we want to achieve our long-term goals.”

“Sustainability isn’t just about productivity and the environment. It’s also about economic sustainability.” —John Reganold, Washington State University.

Having researched sustainable farming for the past 35 years, Reganold has a bigger-picture view of the landscape, which is why the results of a paper he recently co-authored are especially reassuring. According to the paper, about a third of the world’s farms have successfully adopted sustainable intensification practices. It’s a positive step, and a sign of the changing perspectives across the globe. But there’s still a lot to be done and considered if we are to achieve true sustainability.

Sustainable intensification can be implemented via an astonishing array of practical applications. In a bid to identify and assess them all, Reganold’s paper established seven primary categories of agricultural change, including integrated pest and irrigation water management, integrated crop and biodiversity redesign, and intensive small and patch-scale systems.

Each of these categories contains many specific agricultural interventions, from no-till farming to agroforestry (planting trees alongside crops). The sheer number of possible practices makes it hard to assess the success of a particular farm, let alone our global progress. “Different farmers, scientists, and policy-makers have different ideas of the definition,” says Reganold. “Among the main practices that farmers can use to build the soil, improve their environmental impact, and improve their yields in the long term are cover crops, complex crop rotations, and zero or minimum tillage.”

Hands-on experience

All of these practices can be witnessed in action on the Eastern Shore of Maryland at Chesapeake Farms, which is owned by Corteva Agriscience. More than just a working farm, this 3,300-acre operation is designed to demonstrate a host of environmental protection activities, including cover crops, buffer strips, and wildlife management.

“Rather than just hearing about these practices, visitors can come here to see what they look like and how they really work,” says site leader Mark Conner. “Since we’re within a couple of hours of Washington, D.C., policy-makers and regulators also come here to see a real farm and to understand what’s happening in the areas they’re responsible for.”

About a third of the world’s farms have successfully adopted sustainable intensification practices.

Cover crops, for example, have many potential benefits: preventing erosion, enhancing the soil, and providing essential nutrients for the next crop to be planted, to name a few. Buffer strips—sections of non-farmed vegetation between a field and a body of water— help maintain the purity of the area’s waterways.

Technology can also play a vital role in sustainable intensification. “We use farm-management software to monitor and optimize the productivity of our fields,” says Conner. One example: an agronomy program that helps farmers manage how much nitrogen is being applied to a field. The app creates a map based on the previous history of the field, and then uses GPS to apply the appropriate amount of nitrogen to each specific area. “This technology ensures we’re getting the maximum benefit from the least amount of application,” says Conner.

Closing the yield gap

Technology can make a significant difference to both a farmer’s productivity and carbon footprint. And in the developing world, where such innovations are needed most, many farmers don’t have the access to the information, technology, or financial resources they need.

“There are studies that show where the greatest yield gaps are in the world, places where they’re still very far from achieving the yields they could achieve,” says Reganold. “These are the areas where we could really have a more dramatic effect on improving yields. Places like sub-Saharan Africa, eastern Europe, parts of South Asia, and a lot of Latin America.”

Part of the problem is structural. Farmers with smaller plots cannot muster the resources to participate in the most advanced parts of the agriculture ecosystem. Of course, as Reganold points out, “there isn’t just one reason. A lot of it comes down to affordability: being able to buy the best seed, being able to afford pesticides, being able to buy the right equipment and implement the right soil management practices.” But it also depends on the quality of the soil itself. “There are places in sub-Saharan Africa,” he notes, “where even adding synthetic fertilizer doesn’t do a lot because the soil is so degraded.”

A question of balance

What needs to happen if we are to reach, or at least approximate, the UN’s 2030 goals? “Three things can get us there faster,” says Reganold. “More farmers converting to the sustainable systems we’ve discussed; government policies that support farmers’ efforts to convert to these systems; and consumers changing their diets to reduce the impact on the environment.” Curtailing food waste would also take a lot of pressure off the farmers who have to produce our food.

There is no single solution to the challenge of feeding the world sustainably. Meeting that challenge will require that farmers, consumers, and policy-makers work together to produce the changes needed to carry us to 2030—and beyond.

The 2030 Target

“By 2030, ensure sustainable food production systems and implement resilient agricultural practices that increase productivity and production, that help maintain ecosystems, that strengthen capacity for adaptation to climate change, extreme weather, drought, flooding and other disasters and that progressively improve land and soil quality.”