It’s seen as the way forward for global food and farming by the Foresight think tank, but is sustainable intensification really achievable, asks Julia Glotz

There's an unlikely new buzz phrase in UK food and farming.

'Sustainable intensification' was on everyone's lips this week after the concept was given prominent billing in the government-commissioned Future of Food and Farming report.

At heart a rallying cry to do more with less, sustainable intensification should be the key guiding principle for food production in the 21st century, argues the Foresight think tank.

The challenge of feeding a global population expected to rise to nine billion by 2050 coupled with global warming have made it "a necessity" to look at ways of increasing agricultural yields while minimising any negative impact on the environment, claim the report's authors, led by government chief scientific adviser John Beddington. "It should be seen as a major strategy for adaptation for the food system in the decades ahead".

Yet although the term may sound fashionably forward-thinking, some are concerned the report offers too little insight into how sustainability and intensive farming can be squared in practice. As one industry figure says: "Sounds great what does it mean?"

So just how achievable is sustainable intensification especially in a country where Thanet Earth may present a useful blueprint, but mega-farms such as Nocton have yet to win public approval?

Despite the positive precedent set by Thanet Earth, many experts are sceptical sustainable intensification stacks up as a concept. They shouldn't be, says long-term advocate Jeremy Boxall, commercial manager of the Leaf environment and farming scheme. It is not such a leap from what farmers have been doing for a long time anyway getting maximum yield per hectare. Now there's simply an even greater focus on the environment.

"We need to produce more from fewer resources, but while protecting and where possible enhancing the environment," he says.

Howard Lee, sustainability champion at Hadlow College in Kent, agrees. "It's very easy to be cynical. But there are production systems in the UK that are more environmentally benign while holding on to yields," he says. "There are systems such as organic or biodynamic that are environmentally less damaging, although yields can be rather less than conventional farming methods."

It is precisely this contradiction that can make sustainable intensification "sound good but difficult to achieve." However, the "hidden message" in the report, Lee believes, is that the authors themselves know that, and are out to ­advocate modern technology as an integral part of sustainable intensification, particularly GM.

The report advises the industry not to close the door on GM a message the mainstream media jumped on last week. Soil Association ­policy director Emma Hockridge says she is disappointed. Although sceptical about the concept of sustainable intensification itself "it's suddenly a very popular catch-all term that's trying to please everyone" she is encouraged, however, by the report's recognition of agro-ecological farming methods like organic.

For those who do believe sustainability and intensive, high-­output production can go hand in hand, 'sustainable intensification' tends to conjure up two developments Thanet Earth, the large greenhouse complex near Margate run by Fresca Group, and Nocton Dairies, the planned megadairy in Lincolnshire. Both champion agricultural production on a scale hitherto unseen in the UK, and both have set out to make environmental innovations a key component of their developments.

Fresca Group put a CHP system at the heart of its plant to allow it to be self-sufficient in producing the energy to heat greenhouses. Most of the energy it generates is sold to the National Grid, with waste heat and CO2 used to help grow crops. Meanwhile, Nocton Dairies plans to produce milk with a substantially lower carbon footprint than other milk on the UK market as well as proposing environmentally responsible slurry and waste-water management.

There is a lot of enthusiasm for such farming in the UK, says Boxall, but people are afraid to publicly support anything that evokes the world 'intensive'.

"There is an awful lot of stuff going on, but people won't talk about it," he says. Fear of a public backlash over intensive farming units remains high, and few have mastered a way of communicating the benefits of such ­systems.

It is a dilemma Peter Willes, one of the Nocton directors, appreciates all too well. Willes believes there is political support for developments like his and claims Nocton ticks all the sustainable ­intensification boxes, but his ­application continues to hang in the balance amid vocal protests from environmental and animal welfare groups.

Even if it does get the go-ahead, schemes of the scale of Nocton or Thanet could never be suitable for everything or everyone, says Boxall, and those who decide it could work for them then face the prospect of trying to secure approval for their schemes.

"What holds us back are planning issues," he says, and the Localism Bill could make things yet more difficult. If it comes into force, new applications would ­require the approval of a large ­percentage of local residents.

Willes agrees it could seriously hamper the prospects of sustainable intensification. "There won't be any new dairies built for decades sustainable or unsustainable if the Bill makes it through parliament," he says.

The planning regime isn't the only concern. When the report's authors interviewed senior representatives from UK food retail about the potential role for sustainable intensification, some said there was often little public trust in such products and "little capacity for charging a price premium and hence rewarding suppliers for improved practice".

At the same time, food industry executives show a clear appetite for sustainability playing a greater role in their sector with one important caveat: level playing-field, with clearly defined standards to encourage investment in sustainability. "They gave a clear message that they would welcome government-accredited national schemes that set standards for sustainability," says the report.

The challenge for the food industry will be to negotiate the right balance between sustainability goals and increased food production, between the protection of the environment and the scale needed to ensure low food prices.

But there's no reason sustainable intensification can't become the industry's guiding principle, believes Fresca Group executive chairman Christopher Mack. As he told the Oxford Farming Conference this month, just make sure you do the groundwork: "I'd recommend starting with very experienced partners, a very friendly bank manager and perhaps a giant bottle of whisky." 

Why sustainable intensification?
The report argues that sustainable intensification needs to become a global priority because there is relatively little new land for agriculture, yet more food needs to be produced.

Its main benefit is that it allows the food industry to simultaneously raise yields, increase efficiency and reduce the negative environmental impact of food production.

But for it to become a guiding principle, there would need to be economic and social changes to recognise the multiple outputs required and a redirection of research to address a more complex set of goals than just increasing yield.

Source: Foresight Global Food and Farming Futures, 2011