Save and Grow

Chapter 1
The challenge

To feed a growing world population, we have no option but to intensify crop production. But farmers face unprecedented constraints. In order to grow, agriculture must learn to save

The history of agriculture can be seen as a long process of intensification1, as society sought to meet its ever growing needs for food, feed and fibre by raising crop productivity. Over millennia, farmers selected for cultivation plants that were higher yielding and more resistant to drought and disease, built terraces to conserve soil and canals to distribute water to their fields, replaced simple hoes with oxen-drawn ploughs, and used animal manure as fertilizer and sulphur against pests.

Agricultural intensification in the twentieth century represented a paradigm shift from traditional farming systems, based largely on the management of natural resources and ecosystem services, to the application of biochemistry and engineering to crop production. Following the same model that had revolutionized manufacturing, agriculture in the industrialized world adopted mechanization, standardization, labour-saving technologies and the use of chemicals to feed and protect crops. Great increases in productivity have been achieved through the use of heavy farm equipment and machinery powered by fossil fuel, intensive tillage, high-yielding crop varieties, irrigation, manufactured inputs, and ever increasing capital intensity2.

The intensification of crop production in the developing world began in earnest with the Green Revolution. Beginning in the 1950s and expanding through the 1960s, changes were seen in crop varieties and agricultural practices worldwide3. The production model, which focused initially on the introduction of improved, higher-yielding varieties of wheat, rice and maize in high potential areas4, 5 relied upon and promoted homogeneity: genetically uniform varieties grown with high levels of complementary inputs, such as irrigation, fertilizers and pesticides, which often replaced natural capital. Fertilizers replaced soil quality management, while herbicides provided an alternative to crop rotations as a means of controlling weeds6.

The Green Revolution is credited, especially in Asia, with having jump-started economies, alleviated rural poverty, saved large areas of fragile land from conversion to extensive farming, and helped to avoid a Malthusian outcome to growth in world population. Between 1975 and 2000, cereal yields in South Asia increased by more than 50 percent, while poverty declined by 30 percent7. Over the past half-century, since the advent of the Green Revolution, world annual production of cereals, coarse grains, roots and tubers, pulses and oil crops has grown from 1.8 billion tonnes to 4.6 billion tonnes8. Growth in cereal yields and lower cereal prices significantly reduced food insecurity in the 1970s and 1980s, when the number of undernourished actually fell, despite relatively rapid population growth. Overall, the proportion of undernourished in the world population declined from 26 percent to 14 percent between 1969-1971 and 2000-20029.

Indicators of global crop production intensification, 1961-2007
Index (1961=100)
Indicators of global crop production intensification, 1961-2007
Fertilizer consumption
Cereal production
Cereal yield
Irrigated land area
Harvested land area
World production of major crops*, 1961-2009
(billion tonnes)
World production of major crops*, 1961-2009
Developing countries
Developed countries
Undernourished in developing world population, 1969-71 to 2010
Undernourished in developing world population, 1969-71 to 2010

A gathering storm

It is now recognized that those enormous gains in agricultural production and productivity were often accompanied by negative effects on agriculture’s natural resource base, so serious that they jeopardize its productive potential in the future. “Negative externalities” of intensification include land degradation, salinization of irrigated areas, over-extraction of groundwater, the buildup of pest resistance and the erosion of biodiversity. Agriculture has also damaged the wider environment through, for example, deforestation, the emission of greenhouse gases and nitrate pollution of water bodies10, 11.

World population, 2000-2050 (billions)
World population, 2000-2050
Less developed regions - Total
Less developed regions - Urban
More developed regions - Total
More developed regions - Urban
Global average yields of major cereals, 1961-2009
Global average yields of major cereals, 1961-2009
Average rates of mineral fertilizer use, 2008/09
(kg of nutrients per ha)
Average rates of mineral fertilizer use, 2008/09
Western Europe
South Asia
North Africa
North America
Latin America
East Asia
Sub-Saharan Africa

It is also clear that current food production and distribution systems are failing to feed the world. The total number of undernourished people in 2010 was estimated at 925 million, higher than it was 40 years ago, and in the developing world the prevalence of undernourishment stands at 16 percent12. About 75 percent of those worst affected live in rural areas of developing countries, with livelihoods that depend directly or indirectly on agriculture13. They include many of the world’s half a billion low-income smallholder farmers and their families who produce 80 percent of the food supply in developing countries. Together, smallholders use and manage more than 80 percent of farmland – and similar proportions of other natural resources – in Asia and Africa14.

Over the next 40 years, world food security will be threatened by a number of developments. The Earth’s population is projected to increase from an estimated 6.9 billion in 2010 to around 9.2 billion in 2050, with growth almost entirely in less developed regions; the highest growth rates are foreseen in the least developed countries15. By then, about 70 percent of the global population will be urban, compared to 50 percent today. If trends continue, urbanization and income growth in developing countries will lead to higher meat consumption, which will drive increased demand for cereals to feed livestock. The use of agricultural commodities in the production of biofuels will also continue to grow. By 2020, industrialized countries may be consuming 150 kg of maize per head per year in the form of ethanol – similar to rates of cereal food consumption in developing countries16.

Those changes in demand will drive the need for significant increases in production of all major food and feed crops. FAO projections suggest that by 2050 agricultural production must increase by 70 percent globally – and by almost 100 percent in developing countries – in order to meet food demand alone, excluding additional demand for agricultural products used as feedstock in biofuel production. That is equivalent to an extra billion tonnes of cereals and 200 million tonnes of meat to be produced annually by 2050, compared with production between 2005 and 200710.

In most developing countries, there is little room for expansion of arable land. Virtually no spare land is available in South Asia and the Near East/North Africa. Where land is available, in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, more than 70 percent suffers from soil and terrain constraints. Between 2015 and 2030, therefore, an estimated 80 percent of the required food production increases will have to come from intensification in the form of yield increases and higher cropping intensities17. However, the rates of growth in yield of the major food crops – rice, wheat and maize – are all declining. Annual growth in wheat yields slipped from about 5 percent a year in 1980 to 2 percent in 2005; yield growth in rice and maize fell from more than 3 percent to around 1 percent in the same period18. In Asia, the degradation of soils and the buildup of toxins in intensive paddy systems have raised concerns that the slowdown in yield growth reflects a deteriorating crop-growing environment4.

The declining quality of the land and water resources available for crop production has major implications for the future. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has estimated that unsustainable land use practices result in global net losses of cropland productivity averaging 0.2 percent a year19. Resource degradation reduces the productivity of inputs, such as fertilizer and irrigation. In the coming years, intensification of crop production will be required increasingly in more marginal production areas with less reliable production conditions, including lower soil quality, more limited access to water, and less favourable climates.

Efforts to increase crop production will take place under rapidly changing, often unpredictable, environmental and socio-economic conditions. One of the most crucial challenges is the need to adapt to climate change, which – through alterations in temperature, precipitation and pest incidence – will affect which crops can be grown and when, as well as their potential yields13. In the near term, climate variability and extreme weather shocks are projected to increase, affecting all regions20-23, with negative impacts on yield growth and food security particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia in the period up to 203024. Agriculture (including deforestation) accounts for about one third of greenhouse gas emissions; for this reason it must contribute significantly to climate change mitigation21. While crops can be adapted to changing environments, the need to reduce emissions will increasingly challenge conventional, resource-intensive agricultural systems3.

Another significant source of future uncertainty is the price and availability of energy, needed to power farm operations and for the production of key inputs, principally fertilizer. As the supply of fossil fuels declines, their prices rise, driving up input prices, and consequently agricultural production costs. Fossil fuels can no longer be the sole source of energy for increasing productivity. Energy sources will have to be considerably diversified to reduce the cost of fuel for further agricultural intensification.

The challenge of meeting future demand for food in a sustainable manner is made even more daunting, therefore, by the combined effects of climate change, energy scarcity and resource degradation. The food price spike of 2008 and the surge in food prices to record levels early in 2011 portend rising and more frequent threats to world food security25. After examining a wide range of plausible futures – economic, demographic and climate – the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) estimated that the period 2010 to 2050 could see real price increases of 59 percent for wheat, 78 percent for rice and 106 percent for maize. The study concluded that rising prices reflect the “relentless underlying pressures on the world food system”, driven by population and income growth and by reduced productivity26.

The risk of persistent, long-term food insecurity remains most acute in low-income developing countries. The rate at which pressures are mounting on resources and the broader environment from the expansion and intensification of agriculture will be concentrated increasingly in countries with low levels of food consumption, high population growth rates and often poor agricultural resource endowments27. There, smallholders, who are highly dependent on ecosystem goods and services to provide food, fuel and fibre for their families and the market, are inherently more vulnerable to the declining quality and quantity of natural resources and changes in climate14. Without action to improve the productivity of smallholder agriculture in these countries, it is unlikely that the first Millennium Development Goal – with its targets of reducing by half the proportion of people living in hunger and poverty by 2015 – can be achieved.

Another paradigm shift

Given the current and burgeoning future challenges to our food supply and to the environment, sustainable intensification of agricultural production is emerging as a major priority for policymakers28 and international development partners7, 14. Sustainable intensification has been defined as producing more from the same area of land while reducing negative environmental impacts and increasing contributions to natural capital and the flow of environmental services29.

Sustainable crop production intensification (or SCPI) is FAO’s first strategic objective. In order to achieve that objective, FAO has endorsed the “ecosystem approach” in agricultural management30. Essentially, the ecosystem approach uses inputs, such as land, water, seed and fertilizer, to complement the natural processes that support plant growth, including pollination, natural predation for pest control, and the action of soil biota that allows plants to access nutrients31.

There is now widespread awareness that an ecosystem approach must underpin intensification of crop production. A major study of the future of food and farming up to 2050 has called for substantial changes throughout the world’s food system, including sustainable intensification to simultaneously raise yields, increase efficiency in the use of inputs and reduce the negative environmental effects of food production32. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) also called for a shift from current farming practices to sustainable agriculture systems capable of providing both significant productivity increases and enhanced ecosystem services33.

Assessments in developing countries have shown how farm practices that conserve resources improve the supply of environmental services and increase productivity. A review of agricultural development projects in 57 low-income countries found that more efficient use of water, reduced use of pesticides and improvements in soil health had led to average crop yield increases of 79 percent34. Another study concluded that agricultural systems that conserve ecosystem services by using practices such as conservation tillage, crop diversification, legume intensification and biological pest control, perform as well as intensive, high-input systems35, 36.

Sustainable crop production intensification, when effectively implemented and supported, will provide the “win-win” outcomes required to meet the dual challenges of feeding the world’s population and saving the planet. SCPI will allow countries to plan, develop and manage agricultural production in a manner that addresses society’s needs and aspirations, without jeopardizing the right of future generations to enjoy the full range of environmental goods and services. One example of a win-win situation – that benefits farmers as well as the environment – would be a reduction in the overuse of inputs such as mineral fertilizers along with increases in productivity.

As well as bringing multiple benefits to food security and the environment, sustainable intensification has much to offer small farmers and their families – who make up more than one-third of the global population – by enhancing their productivity, reducing costs, building resilience to stress and strengthening their capacity to manage risk14. Reduced spending on agricultural inputs will free resources for investment in farms and farm families’ food, health and education29. Increases to farmers’ net incomes will be achieved at lower environmental cost, thus delivering both private and public benefits31.

Key principles

Ecosystem approaches to agricultural intensification have emerged over the past two decades as farmers began to adopt sustainable practices, such as integrated pest management and conservation agriculture, often building on traditional techniques. Sustainable crop production intensification is characterized by a more systemic approach to managing natural resources, and is founded on a set of science-based environmental, institutional and social principles.

Environmental principles

The ecosystem approach needs to be applied throughout the food chain in order to increase efficiencies and strengthen the global food system. At the scale of cropping systems, management should be based on biological processes and integration of a range of plant species, as well as the judicious use of external inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides. SCPI is based on agricultural production systems and management practices that are described in the following chapters. They include:

  • maintaining healthy soil to enhance crop nutrition;
  • cultivating a wider range of species and varieties in associations, rotations and sequences;
  • using well adapted, high-yielding varieties and good quality seeds;
  • integrated management of insect pests, diseases and weeds;
  • efficient water management.

For optimal impact on productivity and sustainability, SCPI will need to be applicable to a wide variety of farming systems, and adaptable to specific agro-ecological and socio-economic contexts. It is recognized that appropriate management practices are critical to realizing the benefits of ecosystem services while reducing disservices from agricultural activities36.

Institutional principles

It is unrealistic to hope that farmers will adopt sustainable practices only because they are more environmentally friendly. Translating the environmental principles into large-scale, coordinated programmes of action will require institutional support at both national and local levels. For governments, the challenge is to improve coordination and communication across all subsectors of agriculture, from production to processing and marketing. Mechanisms must be developed to strengthen institutional linkages in order to improve the formulation of policies and strategies for SCPI, and to sustain the scaling up of pilot studies, farmers’ experiences, and local and traditional knowledge.

At the local level, farmer organizations have an important role to play in facilitating access to resources – especially land, water, credit and knowledge – and ensuring that the voice of farmers is heard37. Smallholder farmers also need access to efficient and equitable markets, and incentives that encourage them to manage other ecosystem services besides food production. Farmer uptake of SCPI will depend on concrete benefits, such as increased income and reduced labour requirements. If the economic system reflects costs appropriately – including the high environmental cost of unsustainable practices – the equation will shift in favour of the adoption of SCPI.

Social principles

Sustainable intensification has been described as a process of “social learning”, since the knowledge required is generally greater than that used in most conventional farming approaches14. SCPI will require, therefore, significant strengthening of extension services, from both traditional and non-traditional sources, to support its adoption by farmers. One of the most successful approaches for training farmers to incorporate sustainable natural resource management practices into their farming systems is the extension methodology known as farmer field schools38 (FFS). Pioneered in Southeast Asia in the late 1980s as part of an FAO regional programme on integrated pest management for rice, the FFS approach has been adopted in more than 75 countries and now covers a wide and growing range of crops and crop production issues.

Mobilizing social capital for SCPI will require people’s participation in local decision-making, ensuring decent and fair working conditions in agriculture, and – above all – the recognition of the critical role of women in agriculture. Studies in sub-Saharan Africa overwhelmingly support the conclusion that differences in farm yields between men and women are caused primarily by differences in access to resources and extension services. Closing the gender gap in agriculture can improve productivity, with important additional benefits, such as raising the incomes of female farmers and increasing the availability of food39.

The way forward

With policy support and adequate funding, sustainable crop production intensification could be implemented over large production areas, in a relatively short period of time. The challenge facing policymakers is to find effective ways of scaling up sustainable intensification so that eventually hundreds of millions of people can benefit32. In practical terms, the key implementation stages include:

  • Assessing potential negative impacts on the agro-ecosystem of current agricultural practices. This might involve quantitative assessment for specific indicators, and reviewing plans with stakeholders at the district or provincial levels.
  • Deciding at national level which production systems are potentially unsustainable and therefore require priority attention, and which areas of ecosystem sustainability (e.g. soil health, water quality, conservation of biodiversity) are priorities for intervention.
  • Working with farmers to validate and adapt technologies that address those priorities in an integrated way, and use the experience to prepare plans for investment and to develop appropriate institutions and policies.
  • Rolling out programmes (with technical assistance and enabling policies) based on the approaches and technologies described in this book.
  • Monitoring, evaluating and reviewing progress, and making oncourse adjustments where required.

This process can be iterative, and in any case relies on managing the interplay between national policy and institutions, on the one hand, and the local experience of farmers and consumers on the other. Monitoring of key ecosystem variables can help adjust and fine-tune SCPI initiatives.

In preparing programmes, policymakers may need to consider issues that affect both SCPI and the development of the agricultural sector as a whole. There is a risk, for example, that policies that seek to achieve economies of scale through value chain development and consolidation of land holdings may exclude smallholders from the process, or reduce their access to productive resources. Improving transport infrastructure will facilitate farmers’ access to supplies of fertilizer and seed, both critical for SCPI, and to markets. Given the high rate of losses in the food chain – an estimated 30 to 40 percent of food is lost to waste and spoilage worldwide – investment in processing, storage and cold chain facilities will enable farmers to capture more value from their production. Policymakers can also promote small farmers’ participation in SCPI by improving their access to production and market information through modern information and communication technology.

International instruments, conventions, and treaties relevant to SCPI may need to be harmonized, improved and implemented more effectively. That will require collaboration between international organizations concerned with rural development and natural resources as well as governments, civil society organizations and farmer associations. Capacity is urgently needed to implement, at regional, national and local levels, internationally agreed governance arrangements.

In addition, a number of non-legally binding international instruments embody cooperation for the enhancement and sustainable use of natural resources. They include guidelines and codes – such as the International Code of Conduct on the Distribution and Use of Pesticides – which aim at improving management of transboundary threats to production, the environment and human health. Finally, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food has produced guiding principles on land leasing and speculation in food commodity markets, and called for the scaling-up of ecological approaches in agriculture.

There is no single blueprint for an ecosystem approach to crop production intensification. However, a range of farming practices and technologies, often location specific, have been developed. Chapters 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 describe this rich toolkit of relevant, adoptable and adaptable ecosystem-based practices that enhance crop productivity and can serve as the cornerstone of national and regional programmes. Chapter 7 provides details of the policy environment and the institutional arrangements that will facilitate the adoption and implementation of SCPI on a large scale.



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Save and Grow (FAO, 2011) can be purchased from [email protected]

Save and Grow A policymaker's guide to the sustainable intensification of smallholder crop production (FAO, 2011)
ISBN 978-92-5-106871-7
112 pp. 182 x 257 mm, paperback

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