Dry season rice production in drought-affected Nicaragua, made possible by the use of excess rainwater collected in reservoirs during the rainy season, and used for irrigation in the dry season. Photo by: Neil Palmer / CIAT

Which side are you on in the sustainable agriculture debate: agroecological or sustainable agricultural intensification?

Or perhaps you’re in the same camp as Jonathan Mockshell, a postdoctoral agri-food economist under the CIAT Sustainable Food System Initiative, who sees a middle ground.

In a recently published paper, Jonathan Mockshell, along with Josey Kamanda of AfricaRice, explored the heated debate around those two approaches to sustainable agriculture.

Proponents from either side claim their methods are best at feeding the projected 9.7 billion people by 2050 without harming the environment and causing social inequity.

In simple terms, agroecological intensification (AEI) places much emphasis on nature — ergo, farming with limited to no chemicals or genetically modified organisms (GMO). Organic agriculture falls under this category.

Sustainable agricultural intensification (SAI), meanwhile, revolves around the efficient use of fertilizers and other resources. Climate-smart agriculture is one example.

“It’s basically the GMO versus non-GMO debate but with sustainability mixed in,” Mockshell said.

What sets AEI and SAI apart

The use or nonuse of GMOs, in essence, is the main cause of friction between advocates of the two schools of thought on sustainable agriculture.

AEI is “anti-science,” its critics say. SAI is an “oxymoron,” according to its opponents.

Based on existing literature, the differences between AEI and SAI can be considered wide. Take a look at the table culled from the paper.

Where AEI and SAI converge

If one looks past ideology, one can see that commonalities exist between the two approaches.

“There are clear differences between agroecological and sustainable agricultural intensification, but they cannot be generalized,” Mockshell said.

According to the paper, practices considered acceptable under both AEI and SAI but often neglected in the debate include:

  • Mechanization. This includes tillage or mechanical seeding.
  • Precision farming. One example is microdosing or the application of small amounts of inexpensive fertilizer, such as compost, at the time of planting.
  • Water use efficient technologies, such as drip irrigation.

Given the common practices, it’s thus possible to resolve the existing impasse between AEI and SAI proponent.

AEI and SAI rolled into one?

Mockshell and Kamanda put forward a new sustainable agriculture concept that harnesses the similarities of AEI and SAI. It takes into consideration the socio-economic and ecological conditions within a politico-institutional environment of a particular area and how such region perceives AEI or SAI.

It’s called blended sustainability.

For instance, in the global north, where there is less labor supply, organic farms use tractors. However, in regions in the global south with an excess supply of labor, there is a limited need for tractors.

“There’s a middle ground between AEI and SAI,” Mockshell said. “It’s a matter of establishing the evidence; our study has done that. Beyond this evidence, knowledge platforms, policies, and institutions will be critical to harnessing the strengths and opportunities that AEI and SAI provide.”

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Additional information:

The paper titled “Beyond the agroecological and sustainable agricultural intensification debate: Is blended sustainability the way forward?” is published in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability.

The research is funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development through the collaborative project, “Promoting Food Security in Rural Sub-Saharan Africa: The Role of Agricultural Intensification, Social Security and Results-oriented Approaches” under the “One World, No Hunger” special initiative.

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