A growing, increasingly affluent and urban human population is driving demand for more food grown in more-sustainable ways. This issue features a suite of articles highlighting how intensification of production on existing farmland and with fewer inputs is an aspirational and data-hungry challenge.
Sustainable Intensification of Agriculture
Feeding a growing and increasingly affluent population is clashing with efforts to conserve habitat and natural resources. Sustainable intensification, an effort to increase crop yields with fewer inputs and without expanding land use, seeks to balance these priorities.
This Focus brings together research and opinion on this agricultural and societal challenge. The collection also gathers select, relevant articles from other Nature Research journals.
This Perspective argues for a global research prioritization framework to advance sustainable intensification, an increase in agricultural yields on existing land and respecting ecosystem integrity, noting research gaps and suggesting priorities.
The global food system must become more sustainable. Digital agriculture — digital and geospatial technologies to monitor, assess and manage soil, climatic and genetic resources — illustrates how to meet this challenge so as to balance the economic, environmental and social dimensions of sustainable food production.
Energy fuels, and is central to, all physical and biological systems, including the human population and economy. Yet science has missed the significance of civilization’s growing energy consumption. The energetics of the global food system illustrate the counterintuitive aspects of present energy consumption circumstances.
Agriculture has a massive and growing footprint. This study finds that optimizing fertilizer and major crops globally could reduce by 50% needed global cropland, allowing restored vegetation on spared land to sequester carbon.
Conservation agriculture prioritizes soil health and diverse cropping systems. This meta-analysis finds multiple benefits, including for water conservation and profitability, from conservation-agriculture practices in South Asia.
Transgenic rice overproducing Rubisco exhibits increased yields with improved nitrogen-use efficiency in an experimental paddy field
Transgenic rice engineered to increase photosynthetic activity through overproduction of ribulose 1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase–oxygenase (Rubisco) shows increased rice yields, with improved nitrogen-use efficiency, in an experimental paddy field.
Identifying economic and ecological trade-offs of land-use transitions is important to ensure sustainability. Here, Grass et al. find biodiversity-profit trade-offs in tropical land-use transitions in Sumatra, and show that targeted landscape planning is needed to increase land-use efficiency while ensuring socio-ecological sustainability.
Global impacts of future cropland expansion and intensification on agricultural markets and biodiversity
The increase in needs for agricultural commodities is projected to outpace the growth of farmland production globally, leading to high pressure on farming systems in the next decades. Here, the authors investigate the future impact of cropland expansion and intensification on agricultural markets and biodiversity, and suggest the need for balancing agricultural production with conservation goals.
There are multiple strategies to fortify crop nutrition and support global food security and sustainable agriculture. Here the authors propose to increase the diversity of crops by devoting more efforts to studying minor crops that are naturally stress resistant.
Two and a half billion smallholder farmers collectively manage 60 per cent of the world's arable land. How these farmers perform determines their own livelihood, but also affects global food security and ecosystem health. Here, Fusuo Zhang and colleagues show how some straightforward interventions have substantially improved the productivity and environmental performance of smallholder farmers across China over the past ten years. The team carried out more than 13,000 field trials across China's main agroecological zones and found that a series of management practices, collectively termed integrated soil–crop system management, increased maize, wheat and rice yields, nitrogen-use efficiency and farmer profitability. Scaling this approach up to 20.9 million smallholder farmer across 452 counties boosted grain yields to 33 million tonnes over the ten-year period, and reduced fertilizer use by 1.2 million tonnes and greenhouse gas emissions by up to 13 per cent.
Ensuring an environmentally friendly overhaul of the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy will entail payments for environmental objectives, promoting High Nature Value Farmlands, improved flexibility and policy integration.
Large-scale network analysis of invertebrate communities across >500 arable farms in the United Kingdom reveals that genetic modification for herbicide tolerance has little influence on overall network structure, which is largely shaped by crop type.
The authors predict biodiversity loss under potential future agricultural change. Agricultural expansion threatens species richness and abundance worldwide (up to one-third in some areas), often with little overlap between protected areas and high-risk expansion areas.
The land sharing/sparing debate has stagnated. Finding a way forward requires that we ask new questions and, crucially, focus on human well-being and ecosystem services.
The current distribution of crops around the world neither attains maximum production nor minimum water use, according to a crop water model and yield data. An optimized crop distribution could feed an additional 825 million people and substantially reduce water use.
Closing the gap between realized and potential crop yields is key to sustainably feeding the world's growing population. Fusuo Zhang and colleagues report on attempts to increase wheat and maize yields of smallholder farms in four villages in Quzhou County in the North China Plain, using ten practices recommended by the Science and Technology Backyard, a co-operative research project involving agricultural scientists, local extension officers and smallholder farmers. Adoption of these practices—including alternative seed varieties, sowing times and other crop management practices—raised five-year-average yields from 68% to 97% of the attainable level on target farms, and 63% to 80% countywide. The authors suggest that this approach could be adopted in other parts of the world to help smallholder farmers achieve greater yields.
Sustainable intensification is a concept of growing importance, yet it is in danger of becoming scientifically obsolete because of the diversity of meanings it has acquired. To avoid this, it is important to consider the various scales on which it can aid progress towards feeding human populations while also protecting the environment.
Careful management of nitrogen fertilizer usage is required to ensure food security for a growing world population while limiting environmental degradation as a consequence of nitrogen pollution. Xin Zhang et al. investigate historical patterns of agricultural nitrogen use efficiency and how socioeconomic policies and technological innovations can help improve nitrogen use efficiency and achieve the projected 2050 goals of food security and environmental stewardship.