Trade-offs in sustainable intensification

Jun 2016 – Dec 2019

It is a huge challenge to achieve food security for all in a way that is sustainable environmentally, economically, socially and politically. And there are different views on what dimension of sustainability should have priority when trying to produce 'more with less'. 

A woman using homemade compost in her garden in eastern Burkina Faso (Photo: ANSD)

'Sustainable intensification' aims to produce more food, fibre and fodder with fewer resources – for example, by increasing yields per unit of land, water or fertiliser. The concept has been widely adopted by mainstream development actors, but has been critiqued by some who are concerned that it adds 'a bit of sustainability' to systems that are productivity-oriented and highly dependent on external inputs.

IIED believes that sustainable intensification needs to be firmly embedded in a wider sustainable food systems perspective that addresses all aspects of sustainability (environmental, social and economic ones) along the value chain "from field to fork". 

IIED has critically interrogated the concept of sustainable intensification as the main pathway for achieving food security. By bringing together work done by different groups within our organisation and outside it, we have analysed policies and practices related to sustainable intensification to better understand how ecological sustainability and social justice can be reconciled.

What IIED is doing

We are currently working with partners in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Malawi, Senegal and the Netherlands in the project SITAM (Supporting smallholder farmers’ decision making: managing trade-offs and synergies for sustainable intensification). This explores the question of how smallholder farmers manage the trade-offs between production, sustainability, and other socioeconomic and environmental factors, using in-depth household case studies.

These will help develop an understanding of how different types of smallholder farmers themselves perceive the trade-offs and synergies between different ways of allocating their scarce resources (labour, land and capital) when trying to produce more.

SITAM is one of several projects under the SAIRLA programme (Sustainable Agricultural Intensification Research and Learning in Africa), which is using National Learning Alliances to engage with agricultural decision makers.  


Trade-offs in sustainable agricultural intensification: the farmers’ perspective, Barbara Adolph (2020), IIED Briefing

SITAM – Sustainable intensification: trade-offs for agricultural management, Barbara Adolph (2016), Project flyer

SITAM – Sustainable intensification: trade-offs for agricultural management, Barbara Adolph, Beth Downe (2016), Workshop report

Sustainable intensification revisited, Seth Cook, Laura Silici, Barbara Adolph, Sarah Walker (2015), Issue paper

Sustainable intensification revisited, Seth Cook, Laura Silici, Barbara Adolph (2015), Briefing paper

Growing sustainable agriculture in Mozambique, Laura Silici, Lila Buckley (2015), Backgrounder

Additional resources

Summary report of the high-level workshop convened by IIED-Practical Action on scaling up agroecology to achieve the SDGs, Seth Cook (2015), Workshop report

Agroecology - what it is and what it has to offer, Laura Silici (2014), Issue paper

Global food systems

Watch a video about the Global Food and Farming Futures Foresight reportVideo about the Global Food and Farming Futures Foresight report



The Sustainable Agricultural Intensification Research and Learning in Africa (SAIRLA) programme seeks to generate evidence and design tools to enable governments, investors and other key actors to deliver more effective policies and investments in sustainable agricultural intensification that strengthen the capacity of poorer farmers, especially women and youth, to access and benefit from sustainable intensification in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia. 

The SAIRLA programme is funded by the UK Department for International Development and managed by WYG International Ltd and the Natural Resources Institute, University of Greenwich.


ANSD (Association Nourrir sans Détruire), Burkina Faso

CIKOD (Centre for Indigenous Knowledge and Organisational Development), Ghana

Groundswell International, USA

INERA (Institut de l’Environnement et de Recherches Agricoles), Burkina Faso

LUANAR (Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources), Malawi

Practical Action Consulting, Senegal and Malawi

TLC (Total LandCare), Malawi

UDS (University for Development Studies), Ghana

Wageningen University (Farming systems ecology group), The Netherlands