By Shahid Naeem, PhD
Lists are immensely popular these days and there are lists for almost anything. I was curious if there is a list for oxymora, or contradictions in terms, and sure enough there is – oxymoronlist.com. I was prompted on my search because of the recent appearance of the term “sustainable intensification” and I wanted to see if it appeared on the site. Sustainable Intensification is a big fad in worldwide efforts to secure our food supplies in the face of rapidly growing demands and to do so without harming our environment more than we already have. For example, if farms swapped out older varieties of maize for recently developed drought-tolerant varieties, every acre would produce more maize without increasing demands for water – the net result is intensifying production while sustaining levels of water use. Of course, more than likely more fertilizer, pesticides, and labor will be needed, so the farm will be an even more intensively active place and not necessarily sustainable even if the water use remained constant. A high profile paper just published in Science (by Garnett et al., July 5,2013, vol. 341, pp. 34-35), suggested that some people see the phrase Sustainable Intensification as a contradiction in terms, and if this is true, we might have to rethink how we are going to feed us all in a few decades.
It turns out Sustainable Intensification is not listed on oxymoron.com, which begs the question as to whether someone should go online and add it to the list? If it gets listed, some people will cheer the listing as reflecting the action of a rational thinker who understands the realities of our modern environmental crises, while others will see the listing as reflecting the action of a small-minded nature-loving luddite who does not understand the primacy of feeding humanity.
Classic oxymora, like jumbo shrimp, gourmet pizza, and free gifts are funny because they speak to the sometimes confused ways in which we view things, but they also reveal the cynicism that pervades much of our culture. Shrimp can’t be jumbo, pizza is not for gourmands, and if it isn’t free then it isn’t a gift. But marketers, with a certain degree of cynicism, know that consumers respond to such phrases even though they know they are oxymora.
My favorite oxymoron is peacekeeper missile, a missile that could carry up to ten warheads, each 15 times more destructive than the atom bombs dropped on Japan in World War II. This hardly seems like an instrument of peace compared to, say, an olive branch. Peacekeeper missile was clearly so named by weapons enthusiasts during the Cold War to pacify pacifists – peacekeepers missiles were weapons for peace, so peaceniks should hold their peace.
Sustainable Intensification does seem oxymoronic, though where it falls on the oxymoron spectrum between jumbo shrimp and peacekeeper missile is debatable. After all, how can something that is constantly intensifying be sustainable? Usually to intensify means to increase or redouble one’s efforts, whereas to sustain means to hold something constant. Yes, if you were arm wrestling, you might have to intensify your effort to sustain your arm’s position, but you can’t intensify indefinitely. It’s not sustainable. You and your opponent are exhausting your resources in the battle to sustain your position, but eventually you or your opponent runs out of energy and one of you fails. This is the way the Cold War played out with Western and Eastern Bloc countries investing everything they had to sustain their position – it was economically untenable, caused immense suffering, and led to the construction of some 45,000 nuclear warheads that threatened annihilation of both parties and more.
On the other hand, if you were in an arm-wrestling match, you and your opponent could both agree to keep your arms in a vertical position without pushing against each other, then you could both relax – now the activity is sustainable for a very long time and both parties win, or at least it’s a tie. Like the Cold War, the best solution would have been to switch from the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction to Mutually Assured Prosperity. The latter policy framework would obviate the need for something called Peacekeeper Missiles.
Sustainable Intensification refers to increasing agricultural outputs with zero impacts on the environment. Think of it as an arm wrestling match between food production and environmental sustainability. One opponent is entirely focused on producing more and more food, while the other is focused on stabilizing climate, cycling nutrients, preventing soil erosion, keeping lands and seas productive, and otherwise sustaining life on Earth, including humans. If we intensify agriculture so that agro-ecosystems provide us with more and more food, we have to intensify the activities of natural ecosystems to provide us with all the other services we need.
In a report on Sustainable Intensification by Friends of the Earth International, entitled, A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, they point out that intensive agriculture and fishing combined is the largest cause of biodiversity loss, nitrogen pollution that exceeds nature’s capacity to absorb the excess, and accounts for 60% of methane emissions (a potent greenhouse gas) and uses in the neighborhood of 70% of the world’s water withdrawals from rivers. Agro-ecosystems have already replaced more than half of the world’s ecosystems leading to predictions that many ecosystems and ecosystem services may collapse by 2050. Agriculture began intensifying intensively in the 1960s with the onset of the Green Revolution, yet the loss of nature has not slowed down in any significant way and declines in projected agricultural expansions may be more attributable to the decline in arable land – most of the best places for farming are already being farmed.
To some, Sustainable Intensification makes no sense whatsoever – it’s not possible to get farms to produce more food without sucking up more water, transforming more land, emitting more greenhouse gasses and using more herbicides, pesticides and other biocides. For others, Sustainable Intensification is totally doable – one needs to engineer crops to produce more food per acre, and be smart about how we use fertilizers and biocides. Couple that with reducing waste, restoring degraded farmlands and shifting diets away from meat and maybe we could produce enough food. At least one study by Jonathan Foley and colleagues, published in the journal Nature, entitled Solutions for a cultivated planet (20 October, 2011, vol. 478, pp. 337-342) suggests that we can double food production through intensification without expanding agriculture. As Garnett et al. argue, however, food security is not just about improving yields, but improving environmental sustainability.
Returning to our wrestling match, agricultural is a formidable opponent to nature, but we need both. If we sustainably intensify agriculture, however, we will have to sustainably intensify natural systems too, though no one has figured out how to do that. Another billion or two people will raise demands not just for food, but for all the other services nature provides. Right now, nature’s arm is straining and bending backwards towards failure under the force of agriculture.
What’s really odd, (and true with the Cold War), is that the arm-wrestling is actually our right hand locked in combat with our left, which paints a rather silly looking picture. It’s a conflict in which we lose no matter what the outcome because our opponent is ourself.
The only way to intensify agriculture’s delivery of services and insure human wellbeing is to intensify nature’s delivery of services too. It’s time to give nature the same boosts we give agriculture. Devise new policies, novel market incentives, and encourage investment in research to find ways to increase the delivery of all the services we need that farms cannot provide in the remaining area. For starters, we could halt biodiversity loss, stop diverting water from natural systems, and eliminate fertilizer and biocide leakage from farms into natural systems. Once that is done, we would then work to increase the delivery of ecosystem services per acre from natural systems that farms cannot provide. In the end, we might have just as many people and machines working in natural systems as we do in intense farms.
It’s a radical idea – treat all of nature’s services the same way we treat food production. But even if we followed this route, ultimately, Sustainable Intensification is not sustainable – it’s just intensification. Something will have to give. The alternative, which is to stop the escalation of both the demand for and supply of nature’s services, through intensification of food production in agro-ecosystems or intensification of air, water, soil, biocontrol, disease regulation, and marine production in natural systems, just doesn’t seem to be on the table.
If Sustainable Intensification is an oxymoron, maybe we should focus instead on environmental sustainability before the whole world suffers from immense exhaustion.