Sustainable Intensification. The Silver Bullet to Achieve Food Security in the 21st Century?

Term Paper, 2017

18 Pages, Grade: 1.3




1. Introduction

2. Food Security in the Light of Climate Change
2.1 The Paradigm of Food Security
2.2 Food Security and Human Development
2.3 Pressures on Global Food Security in the 21st Century

3. Sustainable Intensification
3.1 The Four Premises of Sustainable Intensification
3.2 A Silver Bullet for Food Security?

4. Conclusion

5. Literature

1. Introduction

In the last years, global concerns about the issue of how the world can provide a growing population with sufficient food have attracted increasing attention. Studies suggest that with world population growing up to around 9 billion until 2050, global food production needs to increase by 60 percent to 110 percent (Cook et al. 2015: 14). Trends like globalization and urbanization as well as shifting diets will not only influence what kind of food is needed but also how it is produced and distributed. The food price volatilities in 2007/2008 and again in 2011 revealed the vulnerability of millions of people to hunger. Also, agriculture is a major driver and victim of climate change.

This nexus of concerns – price volatility, environmental damage, population and consumption growth – poses a major challenge to policymakers with regard to food security. There seems to be a common understanding that the way in which food is produced needs to change. The key question for the international community is: How can food security be attained in the future, while at the same time minimizing environmental impacts?

Some claim that the concept of sustainable intensification, which has gained popularity in political and scientific circles in recent years, provides an adequate answer to this question. Support for the concept comes from high-profile papers (eg Benton et al. 2011, Foley et al. 2011, Tilman et al. 2011, Rockström et al. 2017) as well as from policy documents (FAO 2011a, Foresight 2011). There are different takes on what sustainable intensification actually means but most approaches agree on the the following premises: (i) food production has to increase; (ii) the vast majority of this increase has to come from existing agricultural land; (iii) increasing the sustainability of food production is of major importance, (iv) a broad range of tools and production methods must be considered to attain these goals (Godfray/Garnett 2014: 4).

Although the concept sounds innocuous and proposes a “win–win” scenario of more food for more people with less environmental harm, it is a contested one. While some stakeholders argue for extension and modification of existing agricultural practices, others demand radical change. This paper sets out to unpack the debate and analyze, whether the concept is an adequate answer to the challenge of achieving food security in the light of climate change. In the first section the paradigm of food security is introduced and its narrow relationship to human development is addressed. Then a brief summary of the pressures that threaten it in coming decades is given. This is necessary for two reasons. First, it enables us to understand in which context the concept of sustainable intensification could gain prominence. Second, it gives us the opportunity to examine whether the concept really offers substantial answers relating to food security. In the next step, the concept of sustainable intensification and its origin are presented. The four fundamental premises of the concept are introduced and the relating controversies outlined. After presenting the debate, the paper moves on to examine if the concept is a useful one. In the conclusion the findings are summarized and the research question is answered.

2. Food Security in the Light of Climate Change

Before asking whether sustainable intensification is an adequate answer, it is necessary to shed more light on the challenge it addresses. What exactly does “food security” mean and what pressures are threatening it in the future?

2.1 The Paradigm of Food Security

Generally speaking, food security can be understood as a condition related to the supply and access of food. Concerns about this issue are observable all throughout the history of mankind. Food security as a concept, however, originated only in the mid-1970s, in the discussions of international food problems at a time of global food crisis. Since then, the term is widely used in research and policy. In the World Food Summit in 1974 it was initially defined as: “availability at all times of adequate world food supplies of basic foodstuffs to sustain a steady expansion of food consumption and to offset fluctuations in production and prices” (United Nations 1975). The main concern of the international community at this time was sufficient food production. The proclaimed aim was to produce enough food and ensure a certain price stability of basic foodstuffs. In the following years international organizations like the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) or the World Bank expanded and elaborated the concept. This led to a more complex definition that was adopted during the World Food Summit in 1996: “Food security, at the individual, household, national, regional and global levels [is achieved] when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (FAO 1996). Following this definition, four main pillars or dimensions which have to be achieved simultaneously to accomplish food security, can be identified (FAO 2008):

(i) Availability of Food

Availability refers to the physical existence of food and addresses the supply side. It is determined by the level of food production, distribution and exchange.

(ii) Access to Food

Sufficient production of food at the national or international level does not automatically guarantee the food security of individuals. People also need sufficient resources to obtain appropriate foods. For example, there can be enough food on local markets, but people may lack the income to buy it.

(iii) Food Utilization and Use

Adequate Utilization refers to the ability of the human body to ingest and metabolize the food. This is ensured by nutritious and safe diets, an adequate biological and social environment and proper health care to avoid diseases. Knowledge and cultural practices also play a crucial role in feeding practices, food preparation, diversity of the diet and intra-household distribution of food.

(iv) Stability

Stability refers to the temporal dimension and affects the three others. Even if people’s food intake is adequate today, they are considered to be food insecure if they have inadequate access to food on a periodic basis. Furthermore, transitory is distinguished from chronic food insecurity. Adverse weather conditions, political instability, or economic factors like unemployment or rising food prices can have an impact on this dimension.

2.2 Food Security and Human Development

The relationship between food security and human development is narrow and complex. Their outcomes are co-determined and mutually reinforcing in many dimensions (Beddington et al. 2012: 8). Some of these linkages are well documented and a few of them are presented here in an exemplary way to to highlight the central importance of food security.

Food security and income poverty are directly linked since many poor derive their income directly from small-scale farms. Moreover, many people in developing countries spend between 50 und 70 percent of their budget on staple foods. This is why agricultural growth is up to four times more effective in reducing poverty than non-agriculture growth (World Bank 2008).

Good empirical evidence also exists on the interplay between public health, education and nutrition. It has been shown that bacterial and diseases contribute greatly to malnutrition in many African countries (Uthman/Aremu 2008). Other studies highlight that food shortage forces people to reduce spending on education and healthcare. Hungry children with weakened immune systems tend to start school late and drop out early (UNDP 2012: 13). Better education, on the other hand, enables farmers to become more productive through better use of agricultural technologies, which again results in higher incomes (UNDP 2012: 13).

The interplay between human development and food security is also particular relevant in respect to gender relations. In almost every developing country, women play a crucial role in rural economies and food production. Nevertheless, they tend to have structurally poorer access to productive resources and opportunities than men (Misselhorn et al. 2012: 10). Studies suggest that this discrimination has severe economic consequences. It is estimated that farm yields could increase significantly in many developing countries, enough to lift between 100 and 150 million people out of hunger, if women had equal access to agricultural inputs as men (FAO 2011b: 160).

With these important linkages between food security and human development in mind, we move on to review the pressures on food security that also threat to hamper human development in the next decades.

2.3 Pressures on Global Food Security in the 21st Century

Demography and Diets

The universal right of all people for access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food today is still far from becoming a reality. Almost one billion do not have enough to eat and a further billion lack adequate nutrition (FAO 2015). The world population is expected to exceed 9 billion shortly after the year 2050, with the vast majority of this growth happening in least developed countries (Lutz/Kc 2010: 365). The calculation is simple: More people means more total food demand.

However, global food demand is expected to grow even more because of increased dietary demands by people who become wealthier in the next years. In particular, people tend to switch first from staple food and grains to more preferred cereals and from there to meat, dairy products and processed foods (Popkin 1998). This “nutritional transition” has major environmental consequences because meat and dairy products are often land and water intensive to produce. Moreover, methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide emitted by livestock activities already constitute a substantial part of anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions exacerbating climate change (Vermeulen et al. 2012: 199).

Urbanization and Globalization

Studies forecast that around 70 percent of the world population will live in urban areas in the year 2050. This makes urbanization a robust trend, considering that in 1950 only 30 percent of the world’s population was urban (United Nations 2014: 1). Of course this shift has major consequences for food systems. In particular, rapid urbanization has been associated with higher poverty and crime rates, poorer access to social services as well as water and air pollution (Misselhorn et al. 2012: 9). In population dense cities food security is further weakened by the lack of nutrient-rich soil as well as growing space for local families (Beddington et al. 2012: 8).

Also globalization, the increasing integration of world economy, is a trend that brings important changes to food security dynamics. Average incomes may have increased due to this process, but there are other troubling negative consequences. Chief among them is the increase in volatility of global food prices that became apparent in the 2007/08 crisis. The urban poor in least developed countries are in particular exposed to this price fluctuations (Godfray/Garnett 2014: 3). Moreover, growing disparities between the wealthy and the poor are seen as a result of this trend, which threatens to lock whole regions into low human development pathways (Fuentes-Nieva/Seck 2010: 385).

Climate Change

Climate Change is likely to affect all four dimensions of food security (availability, accessibility, utilization and stability). Its impacts on food availability will be both short term, resulting from more frequent and more intense extreme weather events, and long term, caused by changing temperatures and precipitation patterns. This makes it harder for farmers to plan and manage production since they can no longer rely on historical averages of temperature and rainfall. It is estimated that changes in average temperatures, rainfall amounts and patterns will lead to a decline of overall agriculture productivity by 9 to 21 percent in developing countries until 2050 (Cline 2007, Ericksen et al. 2011). The biggest losses of suitable crop land are expected in sub-Saharan Africa. This means, that people who are already vulnerable to hunger will presumably be affected first. In some regions, mainly in the Russian Federation and Central Asia, climate change may also benefit food production. High latitudes, for example, may become farmable when temperatures are rising. However, overall assessments that try to take into account this effects suggest that the global net results will be reduced yields (Parry et al. 2009).

Models that try to access the impact of climate change on food access come to similar conclusions concerning the prospects for sub-Saharan Africa. Food access is largely a matter of household income, which makes people who derive their livelihood from agriculture especially vulnerable to losses of agricultural GDP due to climate change. The predictions for the effects of global warming on food prices largely depend on the model. Most of them expect prices to rise moderately (Schmidhuber/Tubiello 2007: 19705). The consequences of this are expected to vary regionally. Especially where income levels are low and shares of food expenditure are high, even slightly higher prices may exacerbate a possible food access problem.

Climate change will also have an impact on the ability of individuals to use food effectively, for example through effects on the spread of disease and the nutrient content of foods (Misselhorn et al. 2012: 9). Up to today there is not yet any confidence in predicting the complex nutritional consequences of climatic change for consumers. For instance, cereals grown in elevated carbon dioxide show a decrease in protein and micronutrients, while ozone having the opposite effect (Vermeulen 2014: 2). One major concern is that global warming may initiate a vicious circle where infectious disease causes hunger, which in turn makes people more vulnerable to various diseases. Rising temperatures and more extreme rainfalls are likely to increase the risk of food poisoning or the outbreaks of water-born diseases like cholera (Schmidhuber/Tubiello 2007: 19705). Moreover, the prevalence of diarrheal diseases, which correlates with rising temperature, diminishes the uptake of nutrients of individuals (Wheeler/Von Braun 2013: 512).

Naturally, the stability of food supplies, the last pillar of food security, will also be affected significantly by an increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events. More pronounced and widespread droughts and floods will cause fluctuation in crop yields. Again, the most severe consequences are expected in semiarid areas, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia (Schmidhuber/Tubiello 2007: 19704).


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Sustainable Intensification. The Silver Bullet to Achieve Food Security in the 21st Century?
University of Potsdam
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Food Security, Food sovereignty, Sustainable Intensification, Food Systems
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Anonymous, 2017, Sustainable Intensification. The Silver Bullet to Achieve Food Security in the 21st Century?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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