Farming to increase productivity whilst protecting the environment: Sustainable Intensification

A transdisciplinary project was funded by Defra to investigate how sustainable intensification (SI) could be achieved to secure future food security and resilience in the UK without further damaging the environment.

I have written this post to summarise some of the jam-packed conference where the results of this research was presented. I haven’t been able to cover everything as SI is an extremely broad topic, but hopefully I’ve included enough to give readers at least an idea of what it’s all about!


What is ‘sustainable intensification’?

The goal of sustainable intensification is to increase food production from existing farmland while minimising pressure on the environment.

The term ‘sustainable intensification’ originated in sub-saharan Africa over 20 years ago. It was coined and included in a few papers but then there was little further attention  until the concept was rekindled when UK food security was boosted up the political agenda as a result of the 2007-2008 global food price crisis.

‘Sustainable intensification’ as a term has been hotly debated.  The definition of SI has been heavily contested, with some studies suggesting it is ill-defined. The aims of SI have also led to controversy, with many suggesting food waste and access issues should be prioritised instead (even though from what I’ve seen SI aims to tackle these issues too). Dr. Carol Morris interviewed farmers and found that although 51% of farmers claimed to be aware of SI, just 23% of these farmers actually knew the correct definition; this indicates that there is a need for increased knowledge dissemination.

Thinking of an alternative phrase which covers both the environment and increased production is difficult; sustainable intensification seems to cover everything. This is actually a good thing because it encourages research from a wide selection of disciplines.

Don’t we already produce enough food?

No; the UK alone needs to increase its total food production by at least 30% within the next 10 years. In order to decrease prices so that more people can afford food, production must increase. According to Achim Dobermann, current population growth means that record harvests are required every year, with wheat yield increases of 1.2-1.5% needed. However, future food production will also have to lead to a 0 net increase in land used for crops, no increase in N and P fertiliser usage, and no increase in unsustainable irrigation.

Is food actually cheap?

In the 1950s consumers spent 33% of their incomes on food, whereas in 2010s we spent 15%. However, this 15% does not consider the hidden costs of food – the Sustainable Food Trust recently found that these costs double the cost of our food, making actual food costs closer to 30% of our incomes. When everything else has also risen in price,  we are spending more on living than ever before; it’s hardly surprising that so-called ‘millennials’ are struggling. In my opinion, meat in particular should be dramatically more expensive as there are a lot of externalities involved with meat production, particularly environmental degradation and greenhouse gas emissions. We should pay the actual costs for food at the till so we can re-analyse what we should be eating.

What about meat?

Beef and sheep are the least productive agricultural sector in the UK, it has low profitability, and is highly inefficient with high greenhouse gas emissions and disease rates. Professor Ian Boyd suggested changing diets and perceptions will be important as well as finding more suitable alternatives to meat. However, many small farms rely on livestock production, so it isn’t going to be as simple as making dramatic changes to meat production.

Sheep produce dramatically lower emissions than beef/dairy, and the UK are one of the most efficient sheep producers. However, lamb has somewhat gone out of fashion. Furthermore, current cross haulage is mad; we import most of our lamb from New Zealand but then export a huge amount of UK produced lamb to the rest of the world.


Even Professor Ian Boyd (Defra Chief Scientist) admitted that demand management may be required for livestock consumption; this is difficult to achieve. However, as Professor Michael Winter pointed out, it has worked with smoking!

As a vegetarian whose main reason for cutting out meat was to compensate for over-consumers, I desperately hope that the general public will come to terms with eating less meat sooner rather than later; in my opinion, current consumption simply isn’t sustainable. If future research does somehow work out a way for meat consumption to continue at current quantities both sustainably and with improved welfare then I will be thoroughly impressed as I currently do not think this will happen.


What are the challenges faced by SI?


Here are just a few of the other challenges faced by SI:

Increasing yields

According to a study carried out at Lancaster University, yields are not increasing quickly enough to meet demands. Progress via plant breeding is slowing, so strategies must now include agronomy, genetics, and breeding for salt tolerance.

Crop protection

As the figure above shows, parasites and diseases are of importance for securing a sustainable food future. Research is being carried out to discover innovative ways to ensure crop production in the future is protected from these risks.

Soil (health and availability)

Soil health is crucial to farm production; if land is cultivated too often or has too many rapid crop rotations this can lead to erosion, loss of soil biodiversity and water retention. According to one study, the country has lost 84% of its fertile topsoil since 1850, with the erosion continuing at a rate of  1-3cm a year.



Supply of labour is a key concern for the future of farming. Despite having huge potential for bringing new innovations and technology to agriculture, many young people are struggling to enter the industry for various reasons including the high cost of entering farming, and many of those that may eventually inherit a tenure/land are working in other industries.

UK agriculture has an aging population; the average age of farmers is around 59 (Defra, 2010). This is due to a multitude of reasons including lack of successors, hesitance to retire, and a feeling of duty. Many farmers feel that farming is their life, and research by Prof. Matt Lobley has investigated possible reasons for this. Furthermore, seasonal labour availability may depend on how Brexit negotiations go.

Supply chain

Why is food so unevenly distributed? If we do produce enough food to feed the world, that doesn’t mean everyone can access it; social justice is a serious issue facing food security. Prof. Achim Dobermann outlined a number of reasons for this:

  1. Natural resources
  2. Diet
  3. Culture
  4. Economics
  5. Politics
  6. Poverty
  7. Conflicts


Quality must be considered as well as quantity. One talk at the SI conference which concerned me was the theory of adapting plants to have increase photosynthesis efficiency; increasing yields is great in theory, but not if it’ll be ’empty’ calories with no additional nutrients.

Climate change

I believe this is the biggest challenge that has ever faced the human species. Climate change IS happening and it will continue to test the resilience of global food production as well as leading to further ecosystem damage. Sustainable intensification is already complex enough without the additional threat posed by anthropogenic climate change. I have previously touched on climate change in this post,  but the amount of elaboration needed is immense; I’ll try to tackle some of the issues we face in a future post.

Agriculture is responsible for 10% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, so it is important that an increase in farming intensity does not lead to higher emissions

External factors e.g. consumer pressures, food security, acceptable science

Consumer opinions must change. Expectations are extremely high; there must be no signs of insect life on their produce (whether they’re beneficial or not), crops must be in perfect shape, and must be available 24/7.

Many consumers reject buying ‘wonky’ vegetables despite it contributing to the 7 tonnes of food waste in the UK each year



We waste horrific amounts of food in the UK; one study suggested that over half of potatoes are thrown away, so I’m pleased to see that food waste is finally receiving more attention. I am impressed by the companies that are making moves to reduce food waste, for example Coop are removing ‘best before’ dates in some stores and Asda now sell ‘wonky veg’ boxes to encourage consumers to eat vegetables that aren’t seen as ‘perfect’ (although ideally ALL ‘wonky’ vegetables should become the norm).

Infographic credit: Food Standards Agency


‘If food was seen as more valuable, perhaps there would be less waste’ – Prof Les Firbank, University of Leeds

Another issue with food waste is the amount of packaging it all comes in which also ends up at landfill. If you’d like to read my recent post about disposable cups, click here!


Water pollution from agriculture poses a major threat to UK water-bodies; this can lead to huge treatment costs for water companies, decreases in freshwater biodiversity, and health implications. My PhD focuses on water pollution from agriculture so I will elaborate much more on this in a future post.

Nitrate pollution has had lots of attention in recent years, particularly since the establishment of the Water Framework Directive and Nitrate Vulnerable Zones. Over-fertilisation is already reducing in the UK; nitrogen and phosphate inorganic fertiliser usage has reduced by 32% and 56% between 1985-2015 retrospectively, however, there is still a long way to go.


Part of sustainable intensification is using the land already used for agriculture to increase production; the UK cannot dedicate much more land to agriculture, so increasing land area is not going to be a major part of increasing productivity.

There are 70,800 very small/small farms in the UK and just 7000 very large farms (2016), and the UK has 9080 thousand ha of farmland. 80% of production in the UK is produced by 20% of farm businesses on 50% of the agricultural land.

Guy Smith (NFU Vice President) suggested that skills of farmers should be harnessed to deliver conservation measures on field edges rather than rewilding. He suggested that the direct effect of rewilding Britain could be increased imports from other countries where the environment is lower on their political agenda; this could lead to a net negative effect. However, other research suggests that a combination of land sparing and sharing may be the best method for maximising biodiversity on farms.


Most farm earnings are quite low with high variance and uncertainty. Grazing livestock leads to the lowest incomes and many farms are unprofitable even after receiving subsidies. Furthermore, according to Prof. Ian Boyd, around 25% of farmers do not carry out bench-marking, so they have no business plan which makes it difficult to monitor their business.


Oddly, a weak pound is actually good for farmers as profitability depends on the strength of the pound against the Euro; most farmers are paid in Euros!

Knowledge exchange

Current extension services are all private (since the privatisation of ADAs in 1997), Boyd suggested that Defra may in future be able to provide some help. Caroline Drummond (LEAF) presented her work on knowledge exchange surrounding SI and suggested that information should build on what already exists; farmers should be able to see measures in practice so they can deliberate which measures may work on their own farms.

What are the opportunities for SI?


Here are just a few of the opportunities which may help sustainable intensification to be achieved:

Genomics – breeding programmes/pest and pathogen sequencing

Technology – robotics, nano fertilisers, precision farming, drone technology

Infographic credit: NESTA

Knowledge exchange – possibility for a new extension service

Farmers are often accused of having a ‘laggard’ approach and an unwillingness to collaborate. However, research by Dr. Sophie Wynne-Jones suggests otherwise. She found that many independent farmers ARE working together, just not necessarily formally. She found that 40% of farmers are sharing machinery and labour. This informal collaboration suggests that farmers prefer working based on trust rather than regulations, but this cooperation cannot be relied on. Environmentally, it would be highly beneficial if small farmers collaborated. This cooperation leads to financial benefits as well as emergent social benefits.

Consumers – opportunity to educate the public.

Supply Chain – possibility to extend shelf lifes, natural biocontrol

Environment – Potential for urban horticulture.

Data – Data can be used in so many ways to model possible ways to enhance productivity whilst factoring in sustainability using a wide range of metrics.

Pests and diseases – detection/monitoring

The dreaded ‘Brexit’

At this point I don’t want to speculate too much about the possible implications of Brexit on UK agriculture as there is a lot of uncertainty so I’ll try to be fairly reticent here  (I also don’t feel qualified enough to make too many comments at this stage!). I am a firm pro-remainer but I feel it is time to accept that we are probably going to leave the EU, so we should all start looking at possible opportunities.

In an ideal world, Professor Michael Winter suggested that the new policies resulting from Brexit should lead to the UK population consuming less food but of higher quality, and when eating meat the entire animal should be consumed.  In my opinion, I’d like to see more integration of policy; I believe that the health sector should become more involved in making decisions on the future of UK food so that obesity can be tackled. This is problematic as the different departments have separate agendas and budgets, but Brexit could be an opportunity to change this. There has been a vast number of reports about the possible outcomes of Brexit, if you’re interested you’ll be able to find swathes of them across the internet; I particularly liked this one by the Land Magazine.


The UK only produces around 11% of its own fresh fruit supply and 58% of its vegetables. We are very reliant on imports; this may have to change depending on the outcome of Brexit negotiations. From what I’ve learnt so far during my PhD, I believe that agricultural policy needed to change even before the onset of so-called ‘Brexit’. From what I understand, CAP reform needs to be a priority; current payments mean that landowners who aren’t technically farming are receiving subsidies, and the highest payments are often going to landowners with the most land (who often have the most money!). Small farms are being neglected and I believe that a new approach is needed whether we leave the EU or not. 

I recently attended a talk by David Fursdon (National Trust Trustee), and he suggested that CAP may be making farmers risk averse as they simply ‘follow the rules’ set by the government and don’t feel they can try new methods; a new scheme could lead to an increase in innovations.


As a biologist working in political rural science for my PhD, I enjoyed seeing how different disciplines are able to work together towards the common goal of achieving sustainable intensification.

I have previously found that researchers from defined disciplines are often unwilling to collaborate with other disciplines, and this can hinder progress. I truly believe that most problems facing us today cannot be solved without synergy from multiple disciplines. Agriculture is extremely complex and research is needed from biologists, ecologists, economists, social scientists, geographers, psychologists, and a range of other disciplines.

I haven’t been able to cover everything here as sustainable intensification is such a broad topic, but I hope I’ve managed to outline it and explain just a few of the factors that need tackling if we are to achieve food security in future without further depleting the environment.

Fancy reading more?

The reports from the 3 year research project should be published by Defra shortly, I’ll link to them here once they become available. In the meantime, check out the SI website which contains lots of information about the project.

Here is a list of a few articles worth reading. It is worth remembering that each organisation that has written these probably has it’s own agenda and may have different views, particularly when considering Brexit:

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