Abstract

The sustainable intensification of agricultural systems offers synergistic opportunities for the co-production of agricultural and natural capital outcomes. Efficiency and substitution are steps towards sustainable intensification, but system redesign is essential to deliver optimum outcomes as ecological and economic conditions change. We show global progress towards sustainable intensification by farms and hectares, using seven sustainable intensification sub-types: integrated pest management, conservation agriculture, integrated crop and biodiversity, pasture and forage, trees, irrigation management and small or patch systems. From 47 sustainable intensification initiatives at scale (each >104 farms or hectares), we estimate 163 million farms (29% of all worldwide) have crossed a redesign threshold, practising forms of sustainable intensification on 453 Mha of agricultural land (9% of worldwide total). Key challenges include investment to integrate more forms of sustainable intensification in farming systems, creating agricultural knowledge economies and establishing policy measures to scale sustainable intensification further. We conclude that sustainable intensification may be approaching a tipping point where it could be transformative.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to a number of people for their guidance and updates on numbers of farmers and hectares for some of the illustrative sub-types: H. van den Berg, R. Bunch, K. Gallagher and V. Kumar.

Authors contributions

The design of this study was conducted by J.P. and Z.B. All authors were equally engaged in data gathering, analysis and assessment, and writing the paper and Supplementary Information.

Author information

Author notes

    • Gary Pierzynski

    Present address: Ohio Agricultural Experiment Station, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, USA

    • Johan Rockström

    Present address: Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Potsdam, Germany

Affiliations

  1. School of Biological Sciences, University of Essex, Colchester, UK

    • Jules Pretty
  2. Faculty of Biological Sciences, University of Leeds, Leeds, UK

    • Tim G. Benton
  3. Global Sustainability Institute, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK

    • Zareen Pervez Bharucha
  4. School of Biological Sciences, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK

    • Lynn V. Dicks
  5. Iowa State University, Ames, IA, USA

    • Cornelia Butler Flora
  6. Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

    • H. Charles J. Godfray
  7. School of Life Sciences, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK

    • Dave Goulson
  8. York Environmental Sustainability Institute, University of York, York, UK

    • Sue Hartley
  9. Organic Research Centre, Newbury, UK

    • Nic Lampkin
  10. School of Geography, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, UK

    • Carol Morris
  11. Department of Agronomy, Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS, USA

    • Gary Pierzynski
  12. Sustainable Intensification Innovation Lab, Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS, USA

    • P. V. Vara Prasad
  13. Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, Washington State University, Pullman, WA, USA

    • John Reganold
  14. Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm, Sweden

    • Johan Rockström
  15. Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, UK

    • Pete Smith
  16. Sustainable Livestock Systems, International Livestock Research Institute, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

    • Peter Thorne
  17. Bio-Protection Research Centre, Lincoln University, Lincoln, New Zealand

    • Steve Wratten

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jules Pretty.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Information, Supplementary Table 1, Supplementary References 1–116

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-018-0114-0