Trade-offs in sustainable intensification

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

June 2016 - March 2020
Barbara Adolph

Senior associate, Natural Resources

Resilience and diversity in food systems
A programme of work on how IIED is building greater local control, resilience and diversity into agricultural and food systems
A woman using homemade compost in her garden in eastern Burkina Faso

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.

These systems are not delivering for people and planet either. In particular, in sub-Saharan Africa, the gap between domestic food production and demand is driving deforestation to produce food crops – contributing to biodiversity loss. It also drives food importation – a risky strategy in times of global crises.

At the same time, smallholder farmers and their communities are struggling to mobilise the knowledge and resources for a transformation towards more sustainable food production that provides a livelihood for them and their families.

IIED believes that sustainable intensification needs to be firmly embedded in a wider food systems perspective that addresses all three dimensions of sustainability along the value chain 'from field to fork'. But the inherent tensions between different development objectives and different sustainability dimensions are resulting in trade-offs that need to be understood and managed – at farm, landscape and national level.

What IIED has done

As part of IIED's wider work on the various angles of sustainable intensification – at different scales and in different geographies, we worked with partners in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Malawi, Mali and the Netherlands in the project SITAM (Supporting smallholder farmers’ decision making: managing trade-offs and synergies for sustainable intensification) to explore trade-offs at farm and household level.

This explored 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 case studies in Ghana, Burkina Faso and Malawi helped develop an understanding of how different types of smallholder farmers perceive the trade-offs and synergies between different ways of allocating their scarce resources (labour, land and capital) when trying to produce more. And it helped understand how farmers’ decisions are influenced by factors beyond their control – such as markets, policies and institutions.

At community, landscape and national scale, we are also working with partners in Ghana, Ethiopia, Zambia and the UK to understand what happens when sustainable intensification is not delivering on one of its promises – to reduce agricultural expansion into natural habitats. The Sentinel project focuses on the management of trade-offs between food production and forests.


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


SITAM was part of the Sustainable Agricultural Intensification Research and Learning in Africa (SAIRLA) programme which aimed 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.