Sustainable Intensification within Scotland

Published on 20 March 2012 in Sustainability and Communities


Sustainable Intensification has been promoted by a number of influential national and international policy groups as the solution to meeting the nutritional needs of a growing global population from a fixed, or declining resource base. Sustainable agricultural intensification can be defined as (Pretty, 2011): ‘… producing more output from the same area of land while reducing the negative environmental impacts and at the same time increasing contributions to natural capital and the flow of environmental services’ (Royal Society, 2009; Godfray et al., 2010).

This brief outlines the results of a recently published discussion document on applying the concept of Sustainable Intensification to Scotland. 

Key Points

  • Sustainable intensification (SI) has a strong level of support in policy circles as a means to meeting the consumption needs of a growing population. Whilst it is a global desire, and certainly one that applies to developing countries, Scottish policy has a wider set of goals which may conflict with the requirement for intensifying production. Accordingly, definitions of SI must have a regional focus.
  • We propose that intensification within Scotland needs to meet four dimensions: economic, social, ecosystem and ethical aspects, to be classed as SI (see Figure 1). In addition, SI implies a process over time. Consequently when evaluating SI, a temporal dimension needs to be considered.
  • Scottish agricultural primary production is only a small aspect of Scotland’s GDP output.  However, the value to the supply chain, as well as the associated cultural and social values from farming, are far higher. Scotland is constrained by relatively polarised bio-geographic factors which will limit the potential for output growth from intensification. Nevertheless, ‘hot-spots’ could be identified within the cropping sectors, as well as lowland cattle and dairy enterprises of the Eastern coast and South-West. Conversely, the increasing extensification of the hill and upland sheep and cattle farms tends to indicate that policy goals related to output and sustainability should differ by geographic focus.
  • Intensification is a clear driver of output growth but not the only driver. The characteristics of the farmer and the farm itself will determine how output trajectories develop.

Figure 1. Proposed four dimensions of Sustainable Intensification

Research Undertaken

To illustrate some of the issues with measuring SI over time the Farm Account Survey was used to derive indicators of intensification and of sustainability.  A series of positive and negative correlations were found.  In particular, land productivity, reflective of biophysical capacity, seems to be strongly related to intensification variables for most farms. The ratio of rough grazing to total grazing area, reflective of ecological generation, is negatively related to intensification.  

The principal components analysis (PCA) approach was applied as a means of reconciling the various indicators derived for sustainability and intensification. Using this approach we find that a SI component exists on some farms. Examining this component over time, the frequency of membership (i.e. the number of farms within this component) has declined over time. 

An analysis of farm characteristics finds that size and tenure are key factors in becoming a member of this component. Specifically, owner-occupiers are less likely to be in this group, as are farms which are bigger. However, for LFA farms this is reversed; bigger farms are more likely to be in this group, probably due to the labour and grazing mixtures typified by these systems.

Policy Implications

The need to agree on a definition of SI for Scotland: To be truly sustainable, we suggest, intensification of agricultural production within the Scottish context requires ecological dimensions, but should also include the consideration of economic, social and ethical dimensions.

The need to develop measures of SI: Measuring SI presents both conceptual and measurement difficulties. It is no inconsiderable task to ensure that progress is being made towards increased sustainability, whilst also reconfiguring a farming system towards more intensive production. 

There seems to be no direct support for SI within the policy literature: Scottish policy does not seem to support increases in output but focuses more on quality and adding value within the supply chain. In addition, intensification could lead to a negative image for Scotland the ‘Brand’. The goal of increasing output quantity may contradict the goal of increasing quality of production.

A regional approach to policy making may be needed, with corresponding indicators of success: The land capability profile of Scotland suggests that production is relatively polarised by bio-geographic factors. In this way ‘hotspots’ for intensification can be identified across the cropping and lowland livestock practices of the East coast and the dairying enterprises in the South-West. Conversely, the less favoured areas of Scotland provides a series of market and non-market benefits but may require an alternative approach to managing and supporting development towards SI.

Adoption of SI practices may require new approaches for advice and engagement:  Encouraging the adoption of new technologies which offer multiple ‘non-farm’ type benefits may require different approaches towards engagement. Most studies find a mixture of financial and non-financial factors which dictate adoption. Thus, whilst policy ambitions may change to encourage SI, the key actors within the framework may be reluctant to adopt these production trajectories due to lifestyle and other factors. 

Further work is needed to understand SI issues in Scotland: We suggest a number of areas are needed for future research within this field, namely i) linking data sets to gain a better picture of change over time; ii) using more participatory approaches to appreciate the level and perception of SI across the supply chain, including the consumer, iii) developing multidisciplinary working on this topic to gain insights into how to measure some of the multi-faceted aspects of sustainability and intensification; and iv) examination of behavioural change within the farming context and how farmers, and indeed Scottish farming, can be nudged towards the adoption of practices which meet the multiple needs of present and future societies.

View the full report on the SRUC Rural Policy Centre website.


Dr Andrew Barnes


Sustainability and Communities

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