NSP - Ecological Intensification
Photocredit: R. McPherson

Changing paradigms of agriculture

Increasingly, the global community has recognized that while the last half-century has witnessed striking increases in global food production through intensive use of inputs, such practices may deplete natural resources and impair the ability of agro-ecosystems to sustain production into the future.

However, FAO (2011) along with numerous recent reviews (The Royal Society 2009; Clay 2011; Foley et al. 2011) have highlighted that it is both possible and highly advantageous to address future needs by transitioning to systems of food production that are based on “ecological intensification”—using land, water, biodiversity and nutrients efficiently and in ways that are regenerative, minimizing negative impacts. Ecological intensification may be formally defined as a knowledge-intensive process that requires optimal management of nature’s ecological functions and biodiversity to improve agricultural system performance, efficiency and farmers’ livelihoods.

Areas of the world where agricultural productivity is extremely high - such as in Europe or North America- often depend on unsustainable high levels of external inputs. Here the challenge for ecological intensification is to reduce reliance on external inputs while maintaining high productivity levels by reestablishment of soil and landscape ecosystem services). In other places where productivity is less high, the challenge is to enhance productivity by optimising ecosystem services rather than by increasing agricultural inputs. A further challenge for ecological intensification is the development of novel poly-cropping systems and landscape-scale management of matrix habitats to increase the stability of agricultural production systems and provide ‘Ecological resilience’.

The spirit of FAO’s Save and Grow and new calls for ecological intensification has been to move agricultural development out of a focus on singular focal areas – e.g., improved seed, pest control, water management – to solutions that integrate all components of the farming system. For multiple reasons, there are important present and future incentives to encourage farming systems that build “virtuous circles” – that make careful use of resources, introduce sets of management practices that build on the strengths of each, and facilitate the natural generation of ecosystem services on-farm. 

FAO, in part through its role in leading a work package on Communication, Dissemination and Training of Effective Ecological Intensification in the EU FP7-funded project LIBERATION is providing tools and documents to help policy-makers and practitioners understand and utilize the concepts of ecological intensification in agricultural production.

Annotated Bibliography on Ecological Intensification

Glossary of Terms on Ecosystem Services in Agriculture


A Community of Practice on Ecological Intensification

Core Themes