Sustainable intensification of agriculture? Insights from water systems and an old oxymoron

By André Silveira

The concept of sustainable development is often seen as a contradiction in terms (i.e. an oxymoron). No form of economic development can be sustained indefinitely, given the inherent limitations of both humans and the ecosystems we depend upon to, for example, access good quality water and food. Economists continue to debate alternatives based on, for example, the concepts of ‘steady state economy’ and ‘degrowth’.  Ultimately, I argue, any form of long term development centred on human well-being must safeguard the health of our rivers, aquifers, lakes and reservoirs.

No other sector of economic activity interacts more extensively with water systems than agriculture. In both developed and developing countries, we are witnessing a new wave of agricultural intensification in response to food security concerns associated with a fast expanding global population as well as social inequality.  Food insecurity remains a highly complex phenomenon that has been greatly exacerbated by food waste, the production of crops for livestock, energy policies and prices (leading for example to the use of food crops for biofuels), as well as financial speculation.

Still, international organisations like United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) remain adamant – greater productivity per hectare of agricultural land is needed if the nutritional requirements of an ever-expanding global population are to be met. Crop production intensification is FAO’s strategic objective number one. Still, this round of intensification must be of a sustainable kind, so to avoid the environmental (and social) pitfalls of the so-called Green Revolution vigorously promoted in the decades following Second World War.

Figure 1 (AS_24 Jan 2018)
Figure 1: one of the small reservoirs of the Alqueva irrigation system in Alentejo, Southern Portugal (Source – taken by the author)

Yet, how is sustainable intensification of agriculture to be achieved in practice? The answers are multiple and remain contested. Sociologist and geographer T.K. Marsden notes how proposals can be ranked on a scale of weak to strong interpretations of sustainability depending on, for example, the role of technology, the use of synthetic inputs (e.g. fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides), and the integration of local ecological knowledge. On the weak end, the emphasis is on agricultural production through processes such as genetic engineering, and on technology-oriented scientific knowledge production for efficiency and precision in the use of resources and synthetic inputs. The food crisis and corresponding food security “solutions” are framed in a global, aggregated way that appear to seek legitimacy for a renewed focus on agricultural productivity. This weak version of sustainable intensification has been promoted by a set of actors (e.g. food traders and retailers, producers of seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, insurance companies, investment funds) with mutually reinforcing interests on global free trade of agricultural goods and related products, and on the financialisation of agriculture-related assets and businesses. This is visible, for example, in the production of soybeans, corn and, more importantly for the Portuguese context, olive oil.

Figure 2 (AS_24 Jan 2018)
Figure 2: An intensive olive oil plantation irrigated by the Alqueva system in Alentejo, Southern Portugal (Source – portal agronegócios)

Aligned with a stronger, more ambitious interpretation of sustainability one finds actors, strategies and practices aiming at intensifying the ecological processes that underpin long term agricultural productivity, promote soil fertility and conserve water and organic matter. Knowledge about local agro-ecologies should be integrated in processes of scientific knowledge co-production to provide local and regional food security solutions. Proponents are producers and consumers advocating short supply chains, slow food, organic agriculture and fair trade. Overall, the notion of sustainable intensification of agriculture highlights the contradictions in the old oxymoron of sustainable development, with weak interpretations of sustainability dominating not only the European agriculture and food policy but also its research and innovation landscape.

FAO’s strategy of sustainable intensive crop production advocates careful consideration of the environmental processes through which ecosystems produce important services for human well-being. Well-functioning rivers and aquifers provide humans with, for example, drinking water, food, flood/drought protection, as well as landscapes and environmental amenities that lie at the core of local identities, and senses of place and community.

 Table 1. Water ecosystems’ contribution to human well-being


Regulation Provision

Culture & Identity

Dilution of contaminants, nitrogen and phosphorous cycling, decomposition Water flow regulation (flood mitigation by natural flood plains)

Water purification (e.g. filtration by river bank vegetation)

Water and food for people, animals and plants Recreational, spiritual, aesthetics, educational

Source: Martin-Ortega et al. 2015

The debate about sustainable intensification happens at a time when science has already rung the alarm bell to call the public’s attention to the dangerous way in which we have already overcome planetary boundaries such as the nitrogen and phosphorous cycles and biodiversity.

One of the fundamental issues is that the diffuse form of water pollution that agriculture can cause is particularly difficult to quantify, control and prevent. The problem arises from the cumulative effects, over time, of many small, highly dispersed and individually insignificant pollution sources. It deeply affects rivers, aquifers and oceans, as nitrogen and phosphorous in agricultural soils are released into water systems. The combined presence of nitrogen and phosphorous in water bodies affects levels of oxygen and ultimately their ability to sustain life. This is originating the so-called dead zones in coastal areas around the globe.

Figure 3 (AS_24 Jan 2018)
Figure 3: A global map of the dead zones around river estuaries. Source: Ocean Atlas 2017, Petra Böckmann/Heinrich Böll Foundation (assessed online)

If we are to find long-term policy and institutional responses to this challenge, in defence of a responsible conception of sustainability, the governance of water and agricultural inputs must transcend the temporal and spatial boundaries within which our administrative and political systems operate. On one hand, the slow accumulation of phosphorous in soils and sediments or of nitrates in rocks, defies electoral and policy implementation cycles. On the other hand, the way in which water flows ignore political and administrative boundaries makes it fundamental that new initiatives are transboundary and cross both national and local jurisdictions.

This has been particularly acknowledged in countries like the United Kingdom, through public programmes such as catchment sensitive farming supported by specialised advisory services, in civil society initiatives such as rivers trusts, and in business initiatives through which water companies and farmers collaborate with a view to enhance water quality in reservoirs used for drinking water abstraction.

There are clear signs that the health of Portuguese catchments and aquifers is suffering in areas of intensifying agricultural production. This trend can only be exacerbated by climate change, as more severe droughts increase the concentration and toxicity of pollution, and more frequent flash floods drag soils, nutrients and chemicals into our surface waters. Still, local populations must continue to rely on these water systems both as drinking water sources and as strategic reserves. This is the case of, for example, the ‘Gabros de Beja’ aquifer system, supplying the population of Ferreira do Alentejo where intensive olive oil plantations have sprawled since 2004, benefiting from irrigation water provided by the Alqueva dam.

Building the capacity of government authorities, farmers and local communities to collaborate across water catchments and agricultural landscapes to find their own solutions to this problem will be key to sustainability. Civil society, businesses and public agencies at all levels of social and political organisation must step up cooperation for water and soil conservation at multiple scales (farms, landscapes, river basins). This should include work to openly provide data and information about water/land use, and to promote forms of agriculture that not only guarantee adequate levels of crop production but are also able to safeguard public environmental goods. Social environmental sciences must play an active role in revealing the diversity of problem perceptions and possible solutions, identifying policy implementation hurdles to overcome, and craft locally adapted solutions that the multiple stakeholders can regard as their own.

The pursuit of sustainable forms of  agricultural intensification speaks to the core of the sustainable development debate, the trade-offs between economic, social and environmental dimensions of human well-being, and the way in which institutions and policy-making processes must be crafted to address those trade-offs in a just and transparent way. We must remind ourselves that, to a large extent, the health of our water systems tell us the extent to which we are achieving this.

André Silveira is a post-doc researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon. E-mail:


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