Sustainability of food: going beyond the farmgate

Sustainable agricultural intensification is an approach which is increasingly promoted as a major contributor to future global food security (e.g. Royal Society "Reaping the Benefits"; Foresight "Global Food and Farming Futures"). It aims at increasing food production per unit of input (including land) whilst minimising negative impacts on the environment and optimising other ecosystem services in addition to food production. In many discussions, production is very often confused with yield but intensification should cover qualitative as well as quantitative aspects of food production.

The concept of sustainable intensification often focuses on primary food production, ignoring further steps in the food supply chain which could easily negate the benefits of sustainable intensification on farm. Some initiatives take a more holistic approach, looking at sustainability of food supply chains as a whole (e.g. European Food Sustainable Consumption and Production Round Table ; UNEP Agri-Food ).  It is also increasingly recognised that intensification of food production and supply cannot be the answer in all scenarios, systems and locations and that sustainable extensification should remain an alternative option globally.

Improvement of the measurement of sustainability of food supply chains in all its dimensions (environmental, social, health, economic and ethical) remains an active research area and consideration of the weighting of each dimension and of the trade-offs between them is a difficult challenge. 

Almost every food chain is linked to a wide range of external inputs (including land, water, energy, labour, buildings, machinery, planting material, fertilisers, feed, pesticides, packaging), the sustainability of which directly impacts on the sustainability of the food supply chain itself. In practice, some demarkation needs to be applied to define the extent of the analysis of a food supply chain.

The consumer is the final factor in defining the sustainability of the food they consume. Sustainable consumption is just as important as sustainable production and supply. Even if food products have been supplied in the most sustainable manner, this benefit can be lost if there are issues with consumer access, affordability, waste or dietary imbalance. 

Further reading:

"The ethics of sustainable agricultural intensification", FAO, 2004

"Sustainable agri-food supply chains and systems", China-Europe Forum, 2007

"Unchaining value: innovative approaches to sustainable supply", UNEP, 2008

"Developing sustainable food supply chains", Unilever, 2008

"Sustainable benchmarking of food supply chains", Clark University, 2009

"Sustainable intensification in Scotland", SAC, 2012



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