Organic farming and sustainable intensification?

What is sustainable intensification? A ruse for corporate techno-fix interests to regain the political high-ground or a serious attempt to address future food needs sustainably while respecting the environment? And what contribution can organic food and farming make, if any, to delivering sustainable intensification? Two contrasting perspectives were presented to stimulate debate during the conference.

Nic Lampkin (ORC): Chair

Session summary

Nic Lampkin, Patrick Holden and Allan Buckwell

Both speakers presented their views on the theme of organic farming and sustainable intensification (SI). Allan Buckwell discussed what the outcome of SI should be – more food while not damaging the environment. There is need to intensify current land use and not to bring more land into production. SI also tends to focus on production while consumption also needs to be taken into account. The EU has one of the most intensive agricultural production systems in the world so needs to focus on being sustainable and not to intensify even more whilst maintaining productivity growth. Intensity is increasing knowledge per ha which will be very system and site-specific i.e. different actions needed in different zones. There is a need to destigmatise “intensity”. If sustainable is a useful meaning then we need detectable limits for one or more aspects where there is no trade-offs (Env, Econ, Social) and where the tipping points might be? Aggregate composite indices are therefore no good. If too difficult to observe then we still have a problem, as the environmental limits we have set i.e. water framework etc. are still not being met. Need to more towards better environmental performance. We need to do more at a farm level which is where organic has some answers. Sustainably metrics at a farm level needed so that farmers know what they are doing and should be doing. More effort on detecting environmental thresholds and telling people when they are approaching them and what to do. Patrick Holden shared the concerns about a lack of a shared definition of what SI is. Holden talked about what drove him to start farming in West Wales which was to produce as much food as was consistent with preserving the natural capital of the farm and to minimise inputs and pollution. This focused on the systems resilience, social and cultural systems and at an appropriate scale. These defined what we wanted to do as farmers and he described his farming system (dairy with a single product of cheese) and trying to close the system (over 50% of concentrate produced on the farm). The principles behind organic standards are SI and they are still behind what should inform farming best practice. A problem with current organic standards is they are too rigid and make it too difficult for people to move up to improved approaches. They set a threshold for the market (which is needed) but not helpful for sustainability. It has had the unintentional consequences of alienating people. We need metrics to measure this and work out where we are going or/and improving. Soil carbon could be a proxy for this and pay farmers to build soil carbon is a good example. A new set of metrics (which we might already have) should be used to enable us to define our progress and be used across the different systems i.e. organic, biodynamic, red tractor etc. This would have a transformative impact on the sustainable food system. We need to be prepared to abandon some of our hear felt believes and allow an inclusive system that allows all to get on the ladder.

Key conclusions

The discussion that followed the presentations brought out the following points:

  • Perverse incentives that move us away from SI. i.e. farmers being paid £200/ha to grow maize for biodigesters.
  • Policy measures are probably there but divorced from nutritional needs of population and food system. Need to acknowledge the lack of join up.
  • SI is not rocket science but we need to accelerate from a low rate.

Individual speaker presentations and abstracts

Emeritus Prof Allan Buckwell (Institute for European Environmental Policy)What is sustainable intensification – does organic farming fit the bill? (262kb pdf file)


Sustainable intensification is a sensible, globally defined, approach to agriculture necessary to help meet the challenge of continued population and economic growth. In the EU the emphasis has to be on the first of the two words. The actions to move to a path of sustainable intensification will be very different across the heterogeneous territory and farming systems of the EU. It is necessary to detoxify the word ‘intensive’ and to reduce the woolliness of the word ‘sustainable’. A simple way of explaining the intensification required for SI is to say that it demands more knowledge per hectare. This will especially be knowledge of the impacts of farming on the biodiversity and ecosystems which make up the agricultural landscape. Practically it requires new approaches to measuring and managing the environ-mental impacts of farming systems. Organic farming is one of many such approaches, but its economic sustainability remains in question.

Patrick Holden: (Sustainable Food Trust): Thoughts on True Cost Accounting, biological intensification, soil and ruminants (3.3mb pdf file)

I shall start by discussing why it has been, and continues to be hard to make sustainable food production profitable. The key reason is the absence of what the Sustainable Food Trust are calling True Cost Accounting. By this we mean the way in which the range of costs and benefits arising from different farming systems, both negative and positive, are not properly valued or paid for, with the result that intensive farming is more profitable and products from those systems are more affordable than those from sustainable production.

In my talk I shall discuss the need to identify, categorise, quantify and eventually monetise the range of so called externalities arising from different farming systems. I shall then go on to review ways in which in the future, producers whose farming practices result in damaging environmental and public health outcomes could be made financially accountable for these costs, and conversely farmers who build natural capital, including soil and biodiversity, and produce healthy food with minimal pollution, could be properly rewarded for their efforts.

I shall discuss the need for a definition of ‘sustainable intensification’ and suggest that the only kind of intensification that is compatible with the principles of sustain-able food and farming will be biological and not chemical and explain why. Finally, I will describe some recent revelations which have led to a profound shift in my understanding about the central importance of building soil fertility and of the role of ruminants in sustainable food systems.


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