Clarifying the sustainable growing debate

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25 May 2022
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'Nature-friendly farming is both possible and desirable'

A NEWLY-PUBLISHED paper by Chatham House, an independent policy institute, forum and research company, seeks to clarify the debate around sustainability in agriculture by examining two distinct versions of sustainability

The two versions - ‘Sustainable intensification and land sparing’ and 'Agroecology and land sharing' are discussed in detail, including the key question of whether large-scale changes in demand towards healthier, less wasteful and more sustainable diets are possible.

The report - Sustainable agriculture and food systems: Comparing contrasting and contested versions - was commissioned by the Food Farming and Countryside Commission, and can be downloaded here.


Published on May 24th, it scrutinises the concept of "sustainable intensification" and analyses the barriers to agroecology. Its authors were Research Director Professor Tim Benton and Senior Research Fellow Dr Helen Harwatt.

The Soil Association has welcomed the report, stating that it adds to the increasing evidence for the need to transition to healthy, sustainable diets and agroecology. 

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Commenting on the report, Soil Association Policy Director Jo Lewis said: “The new report from Chatham House shines a light on agroecological, nature-friendly farming as both possible and desirable. In contrast, evidence for so-called ‘sustainable intensification’ is weak – rising yields have instead led to rising food waste and obesity, with no land spared for nature.

“It highlights that if we don’t challenge the assumptions behind the status quo within our food chain, then we will see a continuation of the mess we are in, with more habitat destruction and climate breakdown. If we challenge how we think about what is fixed and what can change, exciting new possibilities open up with agroecology as the strongest solution.

“But only if we believe that diets can change for the better, that we can tackle malnutrition, obesity and food poverty, and that supply chains can be fairer, with markets created for diverse, healthy and sustainable food. If governments fail to effectively incentivise that change, our broken food environment will drive further expansion of industrialised farmland, with more disasters in store for wildlife, climate, and human health.

“Professor Tim Benton and Dr Helen Harwatt’s analysis echoes the National Food Strategy, and we urge government to respond with a strong white paper that embraces the recommendations to spark a shift to healthy and sustainable diets for all, supported by agroecological farming. It is the most evidence-based solution, and government’s response to the National Food Strategy is long overdue.”

Photo: Gabriel Jiminez 

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