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What is Sustainable Intensification? Operationalizing Sustainable Agricultural Intensification Pathways in Europe (SIPATH)


Background context and objectives


Agricultural development in Europe is currently facing a multitude of complex sustainability challenges. The concept of sustainable agricultural intensification (SI) has been proposed for reconciling the requirements for safeguarding future global food security with the conditions for preserving the environment and promoting good quality of life.However, finding the solutions that can best facilitate SI is highly contexts-specific, depending on the characteristics of existing production systems, and their broader economic, institutional and socio-cultural settings. In addition, multiple sustainability outcomes and trade-offs may emerge beyond the farm level. Hence, SI benefits and trade-offs need to be understood and evaluated across different geographical and temporal scales and contexts, in order to enable an informed debate about the potential operationalisation of SI in Europe.

SIPATH is an interdisciplinary project, bringing together researchers from WSL, Agroscope and VU Amsterdam, that aims to address these challenges. In particular, three main questions are investigated:

i. What have been the main trajectories of agricultural intensification in Europe and what were the driving factors?

ii. What mega-trends will be decisive for the future of agriculture in Europe?

iii. What are potential alternative development pathways of agricultural intensification, and what are the triggers and incentives required to reduce trade-offs and increase their degree of sustainability?


Project activities


Conceptualising and assessing sustainable intensification

A conceptual framework and respective indicator set are developed and applied throughout the SIPATH project. These tools provide a structural way to analyse, in a context-sensitive manner, the trajectories and outcomes of alternative (sustainable) intensification pathways in Europe. Our conceptual framework and indicator sets are explicitly cross-scale, integrating the field, farm and landscape scales, and interrelationships with larger spatial scales. We define sustainable intensification as a pathway, by considering conceptual linkages from megatrends and drivers affecting decision processes, all the way to the assessing sustainability outcomes. The field and farm scales are pivotal as the level where land managers, make and execute decisions. Larger spatial scales, from regional to global levels, are also considered while assessing both the drivers of change as well as the sustainability outcomes.


Understanding the mechanisms of agricultural development in Europe over the past decades

Past trajectories of land use and agrarian structures determine to a large extent future pathways of agricultural development. In SIPATH, we build a historical perspective on the changes and diversity in intensity of agricultural production in Europe, with a focus on developments from the 20th century to the present day. Case studies are conducted in different landscapes across Europe, representing a broad range of biophysical, socioeconomic and historical contexts that are relevant for European agriculture.


Transformations and developments at the farm and landscape levels are assessed for each study site based on farmer interviews and landscape mapping. Farm-scale indicators, such as farm area, number of livestock units or crop diversity, are used to describe changes in farm structure and management. Changes on the landscape scale are assessed in terms of changes in land use, field size, and structure of landscape elements (e.g. hedgerows, tree lines, etc.). Finally, we identify the contextual drivers and location factors that have facilitated or constrained the adoption of innovations in the past, in order to provide the historical context needed to understand current and future trajectories of agricultural intensification.


Assessing mega-trends with potential impact on the future of agriculture in Europe

Megatrends are long-term driving forces that are observable today and will likely have transformational potential in the future. In SIPATH, we use a foresight approach to identify, quantify and map megatrends in Europe, such as climate change, demographic change, farm and value chain transformations, and increasingly stringent environmental regulations. By mapping these megatrends at the regional scale, we establish a geography of megatrends and detect where they coincide. The direction and intensity of these megatrends differs between regions, driving them into different systemic lock-ins or change dynamics.


Identifying potential pathways of sustainable agricultural intensification in Europe

The insights gained with the analysis of historical trajectories, combined with the assessment of future mega-trends, are synthesized towards the identification of a set of potential future SI pathways in Europe. In particular, we will develop scenarios and region-specific pathways of SI adoption, identifying their potential accelerators and the networks of actors facilitating/constraining them. These scenarios will thus sketch the option space in terms of future (sustainable) intensification trajectories in Europe, while taking into account the diversity of agricultural landscapes and actors. Our goal is to make these alternative pathways and their respective trade-offs explicit through the use of (indicator) visualisations, in order to inform and stimulate a societal debate on future visions for agriculture in Europe.