BC3 press release: Agricultural intensification is not synonymous with sustained development

“Agricultural intensification is not synonymous with sustained development”



Rasmussen, L., Coolsaet, B., Martin, A., Mertz, O., Pascual, U., Corbera, E., Dawson, N., Fisher, J., Franks, P., Ryan, C. Social-ecological outcomes of agricultural intensification. Nature Sustainability 1. In press. DOI: 10.1038/s41893-018-0070-8

Link to publication

  • A new research study by Unai Pascual, Ikerbasque Researcher at the BC3, demonstrates that land intensification for agricultural purposes has very wide-ranging effects on both the environment and human wellbeing in developing countries.
  • The results of the study suggest that the political leaders must moderate positive expectations on socio-environmental effects with a view to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) based on current agricultural intensification patterns.
  • The study has been published in the “Nature Sustainability” section of the “Nature” journal of science, one of the most prestigious worldwide.

Bilbao, June 14, 2018 – Sustainable agricultural intensification is considered both from the political and scientific points of view to be a key strategy for meeting the global social and environmental commitments established in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and in the Paris agreement on climate change, such as ending hunger or protecting biodiversity and ecosystem services. However, limited evidence exists to warranty that agricultural intensification actually has positive social and environmental effects.

In an attempt to address this knowledge gap, Unai Pascual, together with researchers from the United Kingdom, Denmark, Spain and France, set about revising scientific studies with the aim of analysing the impacts of agricultural intensification on human and environmental wellbeing.

The study was published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature Sustainability, where the research team sustains that agricultural intensification cannot be considered as the sole key to achieving positive effects with respect to social and environmental objectives; in fact, they consider that agricultural intensification – understood as activities intended to increase the productivity or yield of agricultural land – rarely has positive consequences on either human wellbeing or the ecosystems.

While there is great expectation that agricultural intensification can contribute to sustainable development, this research shows that only a minority of existing scientific studies presents evidence to prove this claim and that, even in the cases where “the win-win situation” (in social and environmental areas) is proven, they tend to lack evidence on the long-term effects on ecosystems, such as the regulation of hydrological flows in rivers or the earth’s nutrients cycle, which are necessary for agricultural sustainability.

In the words of Unai Pascual, Ikerbasque Researcher at the BC3 “The population growth and rapid urbanisation of the majority of developing countries implies that a lower percentage of people will produce food, and this will drive these countries into a very complicated situation. Furthermore, it means that many developing countries will make an effort to meet the food security goals by turning to agricultural intensification.

The problem is that applying agricultural intensification may be detrimental to the environment, which will imply negative consequences for agriculture in the long term. This is a pattern we have observed in recent decades.

What we also show is that, generally-speaking, it is not only the environment which suffers as a result of agricultural intensification; in many cases, the local farmers too are negatively affected in terms of wellbeing.”

Another consequence of the study has been the observation that impacts on human wellbeing as a result of agricultural intensification is unequally distributed and tends to favour those in a better economic situation. Thus, for example, a study carried out on Bangladesh showed how the rapid growth of shrimp production enables the big investors with better access to production means to obtain high returns, while the poorest people are left with the negative environmental consequences that affect their means of subsistence.

Unai Pascual affirms that “available scientific evidence suggests that the political leaders must moderate expectations on socio-environmental effects with a view to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals based on current agricultural patterns.” Lastly, he states that “this kind of research, based on the analysis of empirical evidence available from local case studies in many countries of the world, helps us to obtain better understanding of the impacts of land-use intensification on the wellbeing of the people who depend on agriculture and on the ecosystems and the environment in general.”


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