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Sustainable Intensification

Prof Michael Winter discusses how sustainable intensification does not have to be an oxymoron.
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Hello, I’m professor Michael Winter, professor of land economy and society. Sustainable and intensification. Two words that do not automatically go together. Indeed, some people have argued they are direct opposites, contradictory. To put them together is to produce an oxymoron. Intensification conjures up visions of maximizing production through the application of pesticides and fertilizers, and livestock kept in confined spaces. Isn’t it because of decades of intensification that we have the environmental degradation of habitat loss, greenhouse gas emissions, polluted water courses and the like? If we want to reverse these trends and build a sustainable agriculture, then surely we need to reverse intensification, not pretend it can be sustainable.
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The problem is, if we simply extensify farming, we will reduce production, and we’ve a rapidly growing global population that is not a serious option. True, we can help slow the growth in demand for food by reducing waste, by changing our diet, by eating less meat, but this is unlikely to happen fast enough to halt the growing demand for food. And if we impose strict standards to reduce the environmental impact of conventional farming in countries such as the UK, we risk land being converted from forests to farming in other parts of the world. Ideally, we should be reducing the global area used by agriculture in order to allow for habitat recreation and species recovery.
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And to do so requires higher levels of production and reduced environmental damage on existing farmland. Hence, sustainable intensification. There is one input that can help us deliver this, and that is knowledge. It is the application of knowledge that can resolve the paradox of getting more from less. This might be knowledge embodied in new technologies. For example G.P.S. in tractor cabs can help farmers target fertilizers and pesticides to those parts of the field that most need them. The use of robots hold out the prospect of targeting at plant level, and at the same time reducing the need for heavy machinery, which causes soil compaction.
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And there is a knowledge of plant breeding, whether through genetic modification, gene editing or conventional means, which can provide crops with disease resistance and high yields. But the knowledge required for sustainable intensification is not only to be found at the cutting edge of the high tech scientific advance. Researchers and farmers have been rediscovering the use of cover crops to prevent runoff and loss of nutrients from soil over winter. They are looking again to legumes such as clover, which fix nitrogen in the soil, thereby reducing the need for artificial fertilizer.
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So by intensifying the application of knowledge in these ways, being smart in our farming, we might yet feed a growing planet and bring natural value back to our farmland and its associated habitats of farm woodland, ponds and rivers.
Here, Prof Michael Winter discusses how sustainable intensification does not have to be an oxymoron and what advancements and knowledge is needed to feed the planet in the future.
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Future Food: Sustainable Food Systems for the 21st Century

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