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Sustainable intensification – “oxymoron” or “third-way”? A systematic review

Sustainable intensification – “oxymoron” or “third-way”? A systematic review

Mahon, Niamh, Crute, Ian, Simmons, Eunice and Islam, Md. Mofakkarul (2016) Sustainable intensification – “oxymoron” or “third-way”? A systematic review. Ecological Indicators, 74. pp. 73-97. ISSN 1470-160X (Print), 1872-7034 (Online) (doi:

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Sustainable Intensification (SI) is a term that has been advanced to capture a concept that some consider as the ‘third paradigm’ for global agricultural development. However, the term has become subject to intense debates as well as scepticism and confusion regarding its meaning and the characteristics of production systems that could indicate SI (defined as “indicators”). This has resulted in a proliferation of literature. We have conducted a systematic review of a sample of this literature analysing the most commonly suggested indicators of SI in order to investigate the extent to which the critiques of SI are valid in their viewpoints that SI is an oxymoron, underpinned by a productivist agenda, and to identify the critical issues in the development of a comprehensive and unambiguous set of SI indicators. From 633 articles identified by a search of relevant databases, a sample of 75 articles were selected and analysed using the NVIVO™ software. The results were organised according to a Socio-Ecological Systems (SES) framework comprising seven sub-systems or components − resource system, resource units, governance system, resource users, interactions, outcomes, and environment. A total of 218 indicators (both positive and negative) were identified. Most of these indicators focused on the ‘outcomes’ of agricultural systems with the majority being related to agricultural production. Few indicators were identified as relating to the economic and societal dimensions of food systems. Whilst this potentially suggested a productivist bias in the current interpretation of SI it was difficult to draw a black and white conclusion, since for the other system components, the majority of the indicators suggested appeared to take a more holistic point-of-view and emphasised both productivity and sustainability of agricultural systems. Our analysis suggests that a key reason why SI may be viewed with scepticism is a lack of specificity and elucidation of the rationale, scale, and farm type for which SI is proposed. Moreover, a number of the indicators were so loosely defined that the interventions they imply could be enacted without due consideration of the social impacts of their adoption. We conclude that there is need to develop SI indicators according to specific farming types and scales and also with more consideration of the social and political dimensions of food systems in order to promote a constructive dialogue around the concept of SI to take place. Unless the concept of SI is described and measured in such a holistic and inclusive manner, it is unlikely to be accepted as a valid descriptor of sought-after agricultural practices by players in the Third Sector.

Item Type: Article
Uncontrolled Keywords: agriculture, sustainable intensification, indicators, socio-ecological systems, systematic review, meta-analysis
Subjects: S Agriculture > S Agriculture (General)
Faculty / School / Research Centre / Research Group: Faculty of Engineering & Science
Faculty of Engineering & Science > Natural Resources Institute
Faculty of Engineering & Science > Natural Resources Institute > Livelihoods & Institutions Department
Last Modified: 22 Jul 2020 21:08

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