Are Sustainable Intensification & Organic Farming compatible?

Phil Sumption, Research Communications Officer with the Organic Research centre UK  tells us about the different perspectives on sustainable intensification and the role of organic farming, which will be presented at the upcoming Organic Producers Conference 26-27th November.

 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? Contrasting perspectives will be presented to stimulate debate during the Organic Research Centre’s Organic Producers’ Conference in Solihull, near Birmingham UK, November 26-27.

What is sustainable intensification – does organic farming fit the bill?

Emeritus Prof Allan Buckwell (Institute for European Environmental Policy) will argue that sustainable intensification (SI) 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 environmental impacts of farming systems.  Organic farming is one of many such approaches, but its economic sustainability, according to Prof Buckwell, remains in question.

Thoughts on True Cost Accounting, biological intensification, soil and ruminants

Patrick Holden CBE (Sustainable Food Trust) will start by discussing why it has been and continues to be hard to make sustainable food production profitable. The key reason he maintains is the absence of what the Sustainable Food Trust are calling True Cost Accounting.  By this he means 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 Patrick’s talk he will discuss the need to identify, categorise, quantify and eventually monetise the range of so called externalities arising from different farming systems. He will go on to review ways which in 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.

Patrick says there is a need for a definition of ‘sustainable intensification’ and suggests that the only kind of intensification that is compatible with the principles of sustainable food and farming will be biological and not chemical.  Finally, Patrick will describe some recent revelations which have led to a profound shift in his understanding about the central importance of building soil fertility and of the role of ruminants in sustainable food systems.

TheOrganic Research Centre is currently reviewing the contribution of agroecology to sustainable intensification for the UK Land Use Policy Group and the theme of agroecology will be addressed during the conference also by Professor Pablo Tittonel of Wageningen University.

Resilience will be the theme of the Soil Association’s National Soil Symposium which precedes the Organic Producers’ Conference at the same venue.The ORC conference has producer-focused technical and business workshops on the first day (26th November), and a more specific focus on current research and innovation activities on the second day (27th November), with the aim of bringing producers, researchers, advisers and students together to make change happen!


All Arc2020 features on organic farming

Arc2020’s agroecology project

Seven ways to save our tired soils (November 2013, Soil Symposium feature)