How Can We Produce More Food Without Losing Our Ethics?

‘Sustainable crop intensification/agriculture intensification’ are phrases used in the context of agriculture to convey the idea of producing more food with less resources. Lindsay and Andy challenge each other with their opposing viewpoints on the impact of agricultural intensification.

Andy Kleinschmidt

I recently had a chance to meet Emily Heaton ( at an agriculture conference. Before we met, I listened to her presentation on sustainable agricultural intensification. She identified three categories of agricultural intensification: conventional, temporal, and spatial. Sustainable agriculture intensification (sustainable crop production intensification) is a phrase sometimes used when people discuss the future of farming and food security.

According to the FAO (, “Sustainable crop production intensification provides opportunities for optimizing crop production per unit area, taking into consideration the range of sustainability aspects including potential and/or real social, political, economic and environmental impacts.” Sustainable agriculture intensification means getting more output (food, feed, fuel, etc.) out of the same acre of soil without depleting natural resources.

I believe sustainable crop production intensification is one tool that can be used to meet the food, feed, and fuel needs of our growing planet. The UN predicts global population to increase by 1 billion over the next 12 years ( The world population is growing, lifestyle expectations are changing and food choices are expanding.  We should continue to work towards meeting the food need as well as providing food security.

So how do we do it?  And how do we do it in a sustainable way?  First, I’ll reference the conversation Lindsay and I shared on sustainable agriculture ( where I mention that sustainable agriculture does not mean a one-size-fits all farming practice. Likewise with sustainable intensification there are many farming systems that can be considered.  Here are a few examples:

Conventional Agricultural Intensification

Bringing advanced genetics and biotechnology to the market so that the crops can protect themselves from insects, utilize water and nitrogen more efficiently, and produce more yield with the same inputs. One example is corn hybrids that are resilient to water-limiting conditions.

Temporal Agricultural Intensification

Instead of growing one crop on an acre, temporal agricultural intensification adds an additional crop. One example is use of a cover crop that is planted following a corn or soybean crop. Capturing and recycling of soil nutrients is an important benefit of cover crops.

Spatial Agricultural Intensification

Selecting the best crop, or best practice, for the landscape position on a specific piece of land. One example is limiting the amount of dried corn stalks (commonly referred to as stover) that can be removed and used as energy so that soil remains adequately protected.

All three categories of agricultural intensification, as well as the specific examples I have provided, are in practice today.  We are using these tools to work against the challenge of a growing population, and doing so in a sustainable manner.

Lindsay mentions the many conversations she and I have had about advancements in biotechnology. I fully believe that advancements in biotechnology should not occur at the expense of individual rights. Take GM products as an example, I am fully in support of voluntary labeling so that people can choose whether they want food with GM ingredients. My concern, and disagreement with Lindsay, centers around the misinformation about biotechnology that could stifle further advancements or worse yet, be a setback for biotechnology.

Lindsay and I, in my opinion, have much more in common and likely agree on more fundamental issues than issues that we disagree.  Here’s an example of what I mean… Lindsay mentions how we need discussion on changing the way the world eats — I absolutely, 100% agree with her and stand by her and her statement. One example where we can do better is food waste (a bit off topic for this article, but still relevant to the idea of sustainability). We waste food while people go hungry — and we don’t need to travel to a different country to see hunger.

Scientific knowledge and ethical perspectives we bring to the sustainable crop intensification discussion are important. I can think of no better example of the ethical imperative than the Green Revolution from the great Norman Borlaug. The Green Revolution research saved 40-50 million acres from being used for farmland ( Are we producing more food in an ethical, sustainable manner? The answer from me is an emphatic ‘yes!’.

This discussion Lindsay and I are having is exactly what is needed to take place and I appreciate Lindsay’s passion and opinions. Let’s keep the conversation going.

Lindsay Hotmire

Have We Lost Our Ethics?

First, I think it’s important that we begin this discussion with a unified understanding of sustainable agricultural intensification.

The idea of agricultural intensification is nothing new. We’ve been looking at ways to get the most out of our land since, well, as long as we’ve been living off of the land. It’s the law of survival, and as we look ahead to our future, everyone is asking the same question: How are we going to feed an expanding population?

It’s an important question–a necessary one, in fact. And so, when we talk about sustainable agricultural intensification, we’re attempting to answer this question of food supply and security within the context of the existing farmland.

The U.S. EPA reports that in the United States alone, 3,000 acres of farmland is lost (read: sold) to development every single day. And while I’m not here to discuss the financial gains farmers receive when they sell to development or the debates associated with our dwindling farmland, the single fact remains: We’re running out of arable land and water, and while the anti-Save the Earth campaigners want to argue round and round about climate change, this is a fact that we cannot dispute (if we’re going to claim to have a brain in our heads).

As we attempt to answer difficult questions on feeding the world, it makes sense to consider how we can raise the most food on the smallest amount of land.

 Andy and I have had many conversations about this that always end with me arguing that advancements in biotechnology should never occur at the expense of individual rights. He’s never fully agreed with me, and at the heart of it, I think our inability to agree on this boils down to a discussion on ethics. T. Garnett et al. argue in their July 2013 Science article, “Sustainable Intensification in Agriculture: Premises and Policies,” that a broad understanding of sustainable intensification is necessary if we are going to adequately address world food demands. To put it simply, they argue that a singular focus on food security will wreak havoc with the global world, bringing more harm than good. Through their research, however, they’ve identified five areas that can unite ideologies under a common framework.

  1. Relevant data: If we’re going to understand how to best develop increased yields without bringing harm to the environmental and human structures surrounding agriculture, more data is needed to deliver an understanding of best practices. We cannot simply advance with our Western eyes, forgetting that much of the starving world exists beyond our borders and abides by constructs that our technology-driven mindsets fail to comprehend. The cost of that ignorance often results in displacement and urbanization that fail to improve either economies or hunger.

  2. Expansion of Ethics. As the demands for meat-rich diets grow across the globe, the solution clearly seems to be intensification within the livestock industry. In the industrialized process, though, we’ve stripped the animal of its spirit—highly selective breeding that causes harm to the animal, poor living conditions, horrific health issues. So the question resounds: How can we meet demand and protect animal welfare? The probability is that we cannot; therefore, we need to begin discussions on how to reduce consumption and demand. We need to change the way the world eats, and this part of the discussion is barely on the radar.

  3. Filling hungry bellies: We all know that when we’re hungry, although we might be craving the bag of potato chips on the pantry shelf, the best choice lies in the apple in our fridge or the banana on our counter. Throughout the developing world, however, those options don’t exist, and we’re seeing severe deficiencies in micronutrients. How can we produce more food and yet maintain a diverse diet? As the focus becomes on utilizing the land in a way that promises efficiency, how can we promise diversity within diets? A diversion from monocropping is a good start, but is it enough? And can it be done in a way that preserves cultural heritage and provides fair and efficient markets for farmers across the globe?

  4. Rural communities: How do we develop a corporate model and preserve the rural communities and undeveloped countries? We cannot simply target increased yields and farmer incomes without considering the dynamics of the social culture beyond the fields. History tells depressing tales of development that oppresses, pushing the poor further to the margins and allowing just a few to get rich. If we are truly interested in the problem of world hunger, sustainable intensification will consider the social aspect of agricultural advancement. Advancement always comes at a cost, and any sustainable system seeks to mitigate those costs as much as possible.

I appreciate Ms. Heaton’s discussion on sustainable intensification, but until we include ethics as part of that framework, we cannot claim to be moving towards the common good; rather, we are simply advancing singular and powerful interests in the name of security.


Resources and Further Research:
T. Garnett et. al. “Sustainable Intensification in Agriculture: Premises and Policies.” Science 5 July 2013: 341 (6141), 33-34. DOI:10.1126/science.1234485.
The Ethics of Intensification: Agricultural Development and Cultural Change, Paul B. Thompson, 2008.
Sir Gordon Conway. “Sustainable Agricultural Intensification: A Practical Solution for the Global Development Agenda.”

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