Ecological intensification: local innovation to address global challenges, Tittonell et al. 2016

Compendium Volume 3 Number 1 July 2019

World agriculture cumulatively produces enough to feed the whole human population and more, yet hundreds of millions of people on the planet are hungry due to problems of access to food. Noting that agricultural productivity is unevenly distributed around the globe, this book chapter proposes food security through ecological intensification in areas with low productivity and higher rates of hunger. This strategy runs counter to a dominant narrative that agricultural productivity even in high-input, high-yielding farming systems in industrialized countries should increase to fight world hunger. Rather, these authors posit, developed countries should adopt ecological intensification to maintain existing high levels of productivity by replacing synthetic and high-tech inputs with practices enlisting ecosystem services.

In the most productive and industrialised areas of the world the concept of ‘more with less’ is certainly engaging but rather utopic, as these agricultural systems operate mostly beyond their physical and economic efficiencies already. It is hard to get ‘more’ from these systems and this should not be a priority from a global food security perspective, as such production does not contribute to alleviate hunger in the poorest regions of the world. The greatest contribution to humanity from the most productive and industrialised areas of the world would be to maintain current productivity using less inputs of non-renewable resources and reducing their huge environmental impact; in other words, producing “the same with less” [Tittonell 2016: 23].

To illustrate the point that best practices are context specific, the authors describe a variety of approaches to ecological intensification undertaken in various parts of the world. In Uruguay, ranchers help preserve ecologically important, biodiverse grasslands by changing their grazing practices to enhance pasture and livestock productivity with no external inputs. In addition to revitalizing the grasslands, ranchers increased their incomes, allowing them to stay in business and preserve the grassland rather than selling it for conversion to crop production.

In Ethiopia, wheat productivity improves when grown under the canopy of Faidherbia albida, a prevalent local tree, which provides shade at critical moments of wheat development, increases moisture availability, and decreases the incidence of disease. “These benefits were found to result in wheat producing 23% more grain and 24% more straw under the canopy of F. albida compared to sole wheat [Tittonell 2016: 12].”

The analysis of agricultural production systems that reproduce the ecological structure of the native savannah in the Ethiopian highlands showed that biodiversity should not only be seen as a ‘service’ from farming landscapes but rather as the basis for their functioning [Tittonell 2016: 22].

The authors call for the anchoring of ecological intensification of agriculture into social, cultural and policy structures. This could be done through local innovation, policy supporting such innovation, and through multi-stakeholder platforms for dialogue bringing together researchers, local, niche innovators, and actors representing the dominant food system.

Options for the ecological intensification of agriculture can be inspired by the type of interactions between structures and functions that can be observed in nature, by the practical experience of local indigenous knowledge, and by combining these with the latest scientific knowledge and technologies. Ecological intensification calls for a constant dialogue between the practical wisdom of farmers and our own scientific wisdom [Tittonell 2016: 25].

To accelerate change, grassroots movements should seek to influence policy toward acknowledging “diversity in development directions for the agricultural sector” [Tittonell 2016: 20].  

Thus, as the private sector will continue to invest in patentable technologies – understandably – to reinforce their position in the current socio-technical regime, the key role of the public sector should be to reinforce the diversity of approaches, prioritizing alternative rather than mainstream technologies, creating favorable ‘openings’ in established socio-technical regimes, and embracing the complexity and the associated transaction costs of system innovation programs or what could be called ‘co-innovation systems’. In other words, investing in the creation and support of new niches rather than supporting technological ‘solutions’ that are already embedded in current regimes [Tittonell 2016: 25].      

Tittonell, Pablo, et al., 2016, Chapter 1: Ecological Intensification: Local Innovation to Address Global Challenges, Sustainable Agriculture Reviews 19, E. Lichtfouse (ed.), Springer International Publishing: Switzerland,

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