Zero Hunger

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho, Anabela Marisa Azul, Luciana Brandli, Pinar Gökcin Özuyar, Tony Wall

Sustainable Agro-Food Production

  • Hamid El BilaliEmail author
Living reference work entry



Sustainable agricultural development: Sustainable agricultural development is agricultural development that contributes to improving resource efficiency, strengthening resilience and securing social equity/responsibility of agriculture and food systems in order to ensure food security and nutrition for all, now and in the future (HLPE 2016: 29).

Introduction: Sustainable Agro-Food Production in SDG 2 “Zero Hunger”

One of the components of the sustainable development goal (SDG) 2 in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is to promote sustainable agriculture (Table 1). Other components of SDG2 (end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture) deal with zero hunger/food security and nutrition. There are strong linkages among the three components; sustainable agriculture is crucial to achieve food security and improved nutrition. The 2030 Agenda further explains what is meant by sustainable and resilient food production systems (United Nations 2015): “ensure sustainable food production systems and implement resilient agricultural practices that increase productivity and production, that help maintain ecosystems, that strengthen capacity for adaptation to climate change, extreme weather, drought, flooding and other disasters and that progressively improve land and soil quality” (p. 15). Such sustainable food production systems should also “double the agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers” (p. 15) and “maintain the genetic diversity of seeds, cultivated plants and farmed and domesticated animals and their related wild species” (p. 15). Sustainable food production also implies to “achieve the sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources” as states the SDG 12 (ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns) that refers explicitly to “implement the 10-Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production Patterns” (p. 22). Improving agricultural performance (see agricultural production and productivity) will be central to addressing both food insecurity (SDG2) and poverty (SDG1), as nearly two-thirds of the world’s poor work in agriculture and more than three-quarters of poor people still live in rural areas (World Bank 2016). Moreover, investing in sustainable agriculture and food systems and in rural areas creates positive benefits such as reduced poverty (SDG 1), improved health (SDG 3), access to quality education (SDG 4), women’s empowerment (SDG 5), access to clean water (SDG 6), and decent working conditions (SDG 8).
Table 1

Targets and indicators dealing with sustainable agro-food production in SDG 2 “zero hunger”



2.3 By 2030, double the agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers, in particular women, indigenous peoples, family farmers, pastoralists, and fishers, including through secure and equal access to land, other productive resources and inputs, knowledge, financial services, markets and opportunities for value addition, and nonfarm employment

2.3.1 Volume of production per labor unit by classes of farming/pastoral/forestry enterprise size

2.3.2 Average income of small-scale food producers, by sex and indigenous status

2.4 By 2030, ensure sustainable food production systems and implement resilient agricultural practices that increase productivity and production; that help maintain ecosystems; that strengthen capacity for adaptation to climate change, extreme weather, drought, flooding, and other disasters; and that progressively improve land and soil quality

2.4.1 Proportion of agricultural area under productive and sustainable agriculture

2.5 By 2020, maintain the genetic diversity of seeds, cultivated plants, and farmed and domesticated animals and their related wild species, including through soundly managed and diversified seed and plant banks at the national, regional, and international levels, and promote access to and fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge, as internationally agreed

2.5.1 Number of plant and animal genetic resources for food and agriculture secured in either medium- or long-term conservation facilities

2.5.2 Proportion of local breeds classified as being at risk, not at risk or at unknown level of risk of extinction

Sustainable Agro-Food Production or Sustainable Agriculture

How to farm sustainably remains open to debate. The definition of sustainable practices, and sustainable agriculture, differs greatly from one agroecosystem to the next, and between stakeholder groups. However, it is clear nowadays that sustainable agri-food systems are needed to limit the negative environmental effects of agricultural production while providing economic benefits and socially appropriate solutions to the food security challenges (FAO 2014a, b). According to FAO (2014a), “Sustainable agriculture would contribute to all four pillars of food security – availability, access, utilization and stability – in a manner that is environmentally, economically and socially responsible over time” (p. 12).

Over the coming decades, agriculture and food system will face an unprecedented confluence of pressures (FAO 2014a) such as increasing global population; poverty, inequalities, hunger, and malnutrition; land scarcity, degradation, and soil depletion; climate change; inadequate diets and unsustainable consumption patterns; water scarcity and pollution; loss of biodiversity; and stagnation in agricultural research. These will make even more difficult meeting food demand of a population that is projected to reach 9.3 billion in 2050. That population increase and the expected dietary changes indicate that, by 2050, agriculture will need to produce 60% more food globally if it is to meet demand at current levels of consumption (FAO 2014a). Some agriculture production growth will be met by expanding production to areas currently not under cultivation, but growth in yields will become more important. This represents a big challenge in the context of climate change, which could further reduce yields (Townsend 2015).

In the past, the green revolution (using high-yielding varieties, irrigation, and high levels of chemical inputs) boosted cereal yields and has led to significant gains in agricultural production and productivity (World Bank 2007). However, the current trajectory of agricultural production growth is unsustainable. Food production has major negative impacts on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, while rural areas are still home to the majority of the world’s poor and vulnerable populations (FAO 2014a). In addition to meeting basic needs for food, feed, fuel, and fiber, agriculture provides livelihoods for 2.5 billion people (FAO 2013a). Policies and institutions in agriculture that underpin food and nutrition security are increasingly inadequate to face current challenges. Therefore, profound changes in food and agriculture systems are needed to achieve the required level of food production from an already seriously depleted natural resource base. That implies ensuring food security, while providing economic and social opportunities for rural people, and protecting the ecosystem services (FAO 2014a). According to Godfray et al. (2010), “The new challenges require changes in the way food is produced, stored, processed, distributed, and accessed that are as radical as those that occurred during the 18th, 19th, and 20th-century agricultural revolutions.”

FAO (1988) defined sustainable agricultural development as “The management and conservation of the natural resource base, and the orientation of technological change in such a manner as to ensure the attainment of continued satisfaction of human needs for present and future generations. Sustainable agriculture conserves land, water, and plant and animal genetic resources, and is environmentally non-degrading, technically appropriate, economically viable and socially acceptable.” Likewise, according to the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security (HLPE 2016), “Sustainable agricultural development is agricultural development that contributes to improving resource efficiency, strengthening resilience and securing social equity/responsibility of agriculture and food systems in order to ensure food security and nutrition for all, now and in the future” (p. 29). To be sustainable, agriculture must ensure profitability, social and economic equity, and environmental health. Sustainable agriculture should also contribute to all four pillars of food security (availability, access, utilization, and stability). As agriculture is at the interface between natural and human systems, sustainable agriculture must also minimize negative impacts on the environment and ecosystems (FAO 2014a).

FAO (2014a) identified five key principles that balance the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of sustainability in food and agriculture. It also highlighted for each principle some actions and practices to make agricultural sectors (crops, livestock, forestry, fisheries) more sustainable (Table 2).
Table 2

Principles for sustainability in agriculture

Key principles

Key actions and practices





Principle 1. Improving efficiency in the use of resources

Conservation agriculture

Judicious use of organic and inorganic fertilizers

Improved water productivity (e.g., precision irrigation)

Integrated pest management (IPM)

Improved resource use efficiency

Balanced and precision animal feeding

Integrated animal health control

Sustainable management of forests

Forest area increase and slowing deforestation

Improved efficiency of the use of wood-based energy

Development of innovative forest products

Fuel efficiency increase and the use of static gears

Reduction of fishing costs and capacity

Reduction of waste and discards

Integration of inland fisheries in water and land planning and management

Genetically diverse portfolio of varieties and breeds

Principle 2. Conserving, protecting and enhancing natural ecosystems

Use better practices for soil management (e.g., appropriate cropping systems)

Use better practices for water management (e.g., deficit irrigation)

Use grassland for environmental services

Prevent water pollution through waste management

Use better practices for reduced emission intensity

Conserve biodiversity and forest genetic resources

Restore and rehabilitate degraded landscapes

Enhance the role of forests in soil and water resources protection and conservation

Use reduced impact harvesting techniques

Certification of forest management

Develop and use low-impact fishing gears

Build fish passes in dams

Rebuild stocks and protect critical habitats

Restock inland fisheries

Implement the Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries (EAF)

Implement the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (CCRF) and international action plans

Deter illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing

Use better practices for biodiversity conservation (in situ and ex situ)

Set payments for using and for providing environmental services

Principle 3. Protecting and improving rural livelihoods and social well-being

Increase/protect farmers’ access to resources (e.g., land, water, pasture, credit)

Increase farmers’ access to markets through capacity building, credit, infrastructure

Increase rural job opportunities

and related activities

Improve rural nutrition: production of more and affordable nutritious and diverse foods, including fruits and vegetables

Improve forest tenure rights and access to forest resources

Promote engagement of local stakeholders Provide forest-based employment

Establish payment schemes for environmental services (PES)

Improve access and tenure rights

Improve local markets

Promote small/medium enterprises

Enhance gender equity

Integrate forestry and fisheries in poverty reduction strategies

Principle 4. Enhancing the resilience of people, communities, and ecosystems

Generalize risk assessment/management and communication

Prepare for/adapt to climate change

Respond to market volatility, e.g., encouraging flexibility in production systems, and savings

Contingency planning for droughts, floods, and pest outbreaks, e.g., social safety nets

Increase resilience of forest ecosystems to hazards

Prevent the transmission of pathogens through international trade

Integrate risk management into sustainable land planning

Generalize risk assessment/management and communication

Develop multipurpose industries

Adopt the precautionary approach/principle

Enhance social safety nets

Prepare for climate change

Principle 5. Promoting good governance of both natural and human systems

Increase effective participation

Encourage formation of associations

Increase frequency and content of consultations among stakeholders

Develop decentralized capacity

Develop human and institutional capacity

Decentralize decision-making and empower local communities

Apply mediation and conflict resolution in governance

Develop local governance capacity

Empower local communities

Adopt good governance principle

Decentralize decision-making

Source: Adapted from FAO (2014a)

Sustainability Assessment in Agriculture and Food Production

Assessment of the environmental, economic, and social sustainability of agriculture is crucial for moving toward a sustainable agro-food future. It is also of paramount importance to inform agro-food chain actors and stakeholders about the effectiveness of their strategies and actions aiming at facing the “great balancing act” (Searchinger et al. 2013) of making agriculture meet simultaneously three needs, i.e., closing the food gap to adequately feed the planet by 2050; contributing to economic and social development in rural areas; and reducing impacts of agriculture on climate, natural resources (water, soil), and ecosystems.

Latruffe et al. (2016) provide an overview on how sustainability is perceived and assessed in agriculture. The review shows that the environmental sustainability is characterized by a multitude of themes covered (e.g., biodiversity; use of nutrients, pesticides, and resources, e.g., energy and water; land/soil management; emissions of greenhouse gases) and, consequently, a high number of indicators. Meanwhile, economic sustainability indicators cover a small number of themes mainly related to economic viability (e.g., profitability, liquidity, stability, productivity). Social sustainability indicators focus on the well-being of farmers and their families or the society as a whole (e.g., multifunctionality of agriculture, acceptability of agricultural practices, quality of agro-food products). Moreover, social indicators (e.g., education, working conditions, quality of life) are often qualitative, which makes their assessment challenging and subjective, while economic and environmental indicators are usually quantitative.

Reytar et al. (2014) analyzed the landscape of existing indicators and indices relevant to the environmental sustainability of agriculture. They found that the most common themes in the landscape of existing agri-environmental indicators are water use by agriculture, agriculture policies (e.g., agriculture subsidies), and climate change (greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture). Based on their analysis, they proposed that any set of indicators of agriculture environmental sustainability cover at least five thematic areas, i.e., water, climate change, land conversion and impacts on terrestrial ecosystems, soil health, and pollution (nutrients/fertilizers and pesticides). Indicators may be integrated into a single index in order to make easier comparisons, but this implies weighting (e.g., equal weighting, adjusting for statistical correlation, differential weighting based on expert judgment) and aggregating (e.g., arithmetic average, geometric average, setting a “knockout” threshold) the constituent indicators of the index.

FAO (2013b) developed the Sustainability Assessment of Food and Agriculture systems (SAFA) framework with 21 themes, 58 sub-themes, and 118 indicators. Interestingly, SAFA framework considers good governance as one of the four dimensions of sustainability (Table 3).
Table 3

SAFA sustainability dimensions and themes

Sustainability dimension


Good governance (G)

G1 Corporate ethics

G2 Accountability

G3 Participation

G4 Rule of law

G5 Holistic management


Environmental integrity (E)

E1 Atmosphere

E2 Water

E3 Land

E4 Biodiversity

E5 Materials and energy

E6 Animal welfare

Economic resilience (C)

C1 Investment

C2 Vulnerability

C3 Product quality and information

C4 Local economy

Social well-being (S)

S1 Decent livelihood

S2 Fair trading practices

S3 Labor rights

S4 Equity

S5 Human safety and health

S6 Cultural diversity

Source: Adapted from FAO (2013b)

A growing challenge to sustainability is to balance benefits and trade-offs that result from agriculture. Trade-offs occur between the human and natural systems, within both, and overtime. However, a holistic vision of sustainability in agriculture must look beyond simply balancing trade-offs and explore opportunities for creating complementarities and synergies between crops and livestock, and between capture fisheries and aquaculture (FAO 2014a).

Pathways for Transition Toward Sustainable Agro-Food Production

According to Garnett (2014), there are three perspectives on how to achieve sustainable food security: efficiency-oriented (cf. sustainable intensification of agriculture), demand restraint, and food system transformation. These perspectives reflect different visions and are underpinned by different ideologies, ethics, and values. Freibauer et al. (2011) point out that there are basically two narratives to achieve sustainable food production and consumption: the productivity narrative considers as a serious threat that food demand will not be met and presents as a solution scientific advances that bring forward varieties, breeds, and technologies that boost productivity; and the sufficiency narrative is concerned about the functioning of the current food system – that produces waste, overconsumption, and mass health problems – and recommends to mitigate food demand increase through behavioral change while promoting agroecosystems that are both productive and respectful for ecosystems. Therefore, while the “productivity narrative” focuses on production side of the food chain, the “sufficiency narrative” focuses on consumption side.

According to Dobermann and Nelson (2013), solutions for sustainable food production include closing yield gaps and reducing yield variability through improved crop production; closing efficiency gap through an agronomic revolution; implementing a small- to medium-scale mechanization revolution; promoting the use of smart technologies for increasing the efficiency of water, energy, and nutrients; saving labor, reducing losses, and improving product quality through harvest and postharvest technologies; taking advantage of cheap information to provide digital agriculture solutions for farmers; investing in agricultural infrastructure to enable agriculture intensification and diversification; developing new business models for smallholder farming; supporting the growth of rural agribusiness hubs that provide the full range of inputs and services to farmers and their families; speeding up last-mile delivery of new technologies and knowledge; stopping chopping down forests with high levels of biodiversity; promoting crop management technologies that enable farmers to adapt to climate change; and creating new knowledge-sharing platforms for learning and cooperation.

Landscape of Alternative Agriculture Systems

Different agriculture systems and models have been promoted as alternatives of the prevailing conventional, industrialized agriculture (Table 4). They are commonly associated with sustainable agricultural systems, and each relates to sustainable agriculture concept, but none is synonymous with sustainable agriculture. The most prominent one is organic agriculture. These alternatives imply the use of environmentally friendly farming practices. Most of these models promote a de-intensification of agriculture production (cf. reduction of input use) and adoption of a holistic management of agroecosystems thus benefiting from ecosystem services. Other approaches call for more integration of crop production with either animal husbandry (e.g., mixed farming) or forestry (e.g., agroforestry). Adaptation to climate change is also a recurring theme, and some alternative approaches of agriculture (e.g., conservation agriculture and, especially, climate-smart agriculture) address this issue. Also urban agriculture can be considered as an alternative to “rural” agriculture. Some other alternatives focus on social sustainability of agriculture and aim to strengthen relations between consumers and producers (e.g., community-supported agriculture).
Table 4

Alternative agriculture systems

Agriculture system



Organic agriculture

Organic agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems, and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity, and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic agriculture combines tradition, innovation, and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved

IFOAM 2018a

Biodynamic agriculture

Biodynamic agriculture is an ecological farming system that views the farm as a self-contained and self-sustaining organism. Biodynamic farmers strictly avoid all synthetic chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and transgenic contamination. The health and well-being of the farm animals, the farmer, the farm, and the Earth: all are integral parts that make up the whole

Demeter Association 2017


Permaculture uses the inherent qualities of plants and animals combined with the natural characteristics of landscapes and structures to produce a life-supporting system for city and country, using the smallest practical area. The aim is to create systems that are ecologically sound and economically viable, which provide for their own needs, do not exploit or pollute, and are therefore sustainable in the long term

Mollison 1997

Conservation agriculture

Conservation agriculture (CA) is an approach to managing agroecosystems for improved and sustained productivity, increased profits, and food security while preserving and enhancing the resource base and the environment. CA is characterized by three linked principles, namely: continuous minimum mechanical soil disturbance, permanent organic soil cover, diversification of crop species grown in sequences and/or associations

FAO 2018a

Biological farming

Biological farming is a system of crop production in which the producer tries to minimize the use of “chemicals” for control of crop pests

Pesek 1983

Low-input agriculture

Low-input farming systems seek to optimize the management and use of internal production inputs (i.e., on-farm resources) and to minimize the use of production inputs (i.e., off-farm resources), such as purchased fertilizers and pesticides, wherever and whenever feasible and practicable

Parr et al. 1990

Natural farming

Natural farming or “do-nothing farming” involves no tillage, no fertilizer, no pesticides, no weeding, no pruning, and little labor. It relies on careful timing of seeding and careful combinations of plants (polyculture)

Fukuoka 1985

Nature farming

The theory of nature farming, as Okada [Mokicho Okada, AN] expounded it, rests on a belief in the universal life-giving powers that the elements of fire, water, and earth confer on the soil. The planet’s soil, created over a span of eons, has acquired life-sustaining properties, in accordance with the principle of the indivisibility of the spiritual and the physical realms, which in turn provide the life-force that enables plants to grow. To utilize the inherent power of the soil is the underlying principle of nature farming

Mokicho Okada Association (MOA) 1995

Regenerative agriculture

Regenerative agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices that increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds, and enhances ecosystem services. By capturing carbon in soil and aboveground biomass, regenerative agriculture aims to reverse global climate change. At the same time, it offers increased yields, resilience to climate instability, and higher health and vitality for farming communities

Terra Genesis International 2017

Climate-smart agriculture

Agriculture that sustainably increases productivity, enhances resilience (adaptation), reduces/removes GHGs (mitigation) where possible, and enhances achievement of national food security and development goals

FAO 2013c

Climate-smart agriculture (CSA) aims to tackle three main objectives: sustainably increasing agricultural productivity and incomes; adapting and building resilience to climate change; and reducing and/or removing greenhouse gas emissions, where possible

FAO 2018b

Precision farming

Precision farming is based on the optimized management of inputs in a field according to actual crop needs. It involves data-based technologies, including satellite positioning systems like GPS, remote sensing, and the Internet, to manage crops and reduce the use of fertilizers, pesticides, and water

EurActiv 2015


Agroecology is a scientific discipline, a set of practices, and a social movement. As a science, it studies how different components of the agroecosystem interact. As a set of practices, it seeks sustainable farming systems that optimize and stabilize yields. As a social movement, it pursues multifunctional roles for agriculture, promotes social justice, nurtures identity and culture, and strengthens the economic viability of rural areas

FAO 2018c

Integrated farming

Integrated production/farming is a farming system that produces high-quality food and other products by using natural resources and regulating mechanisms to replace polluting inputs and to secure sustainable farming. Emphasis is placed on a holistic systems approach, the central role of agroecosystems, balanced nutrient cycles, and animal welfare. Biological, technical, and chemical methods are balanced carefully taking into account the protection of the environment, profitability, and social requirements

Boller et al. 2004

Mixed farming

Many farmers in tropical and temperate countries survive by managing a mix of different crops and/or animals. The best known form of mixed farming is when crop residues are used to feed the animals, and the excreta from the animals are used as nutrients for the crops. Other forms of mixing take place where grazing under fruit trees keeps the grass short or where manure from pigs is used to “feed” the fishpond

FAO 2001


Agroforestry is a collective name for land-use systems and technologies where woody perennials (trees, shrubs, palms, bamboos, etc.) are deliberately used on the same land management units as agricultural crops and/or animals, in some form of spatial arrangement or temporal sequence. There are three main types of agroforestry systems: agrisilvicultural (crops and trees), silvopastoral (forestry and pastures/rangelands), and agrosylvopastoral (trees, animals, and crops)

FAO 2015a

Urban agriculture

Urban agriculture can be defined shortly as the growing of plants and the raising of animals within and around cities. The most striking feature of urban agriculture, which distinguishes it from rural agriculture, is that it is integrated into the urban economic and ecological system: urban agriculture is embedded in – and interacting with – the urban ecosystem.

RUAF 2018

Community-supported agriculture (CSA)

Community-supported agriculture (CSA) is a partnership of mutual commitment between a farm and a community of supporters that provides a direct link between the production and consumption of food. Supporters usually cover a farm’s yearly operating budget by purchasing a share of the season’s harvest, and in some cases, they assist with the farm work. In return, the farm provides, to the best of its ability, a healthy supply of seasonal fresh produce

IFOAM 2018b

Sustainable Intensification

Many initiatives that deal with food security have been centered on boosting food production. This focus has found a new incarnation in “sustainable intensification,” as a means of combining environmental concerns with the imperative to grow more food, more quickly, for a growing population. Nevertheless, this tendency to narrow the food system analytical lens risks perpetuating scientific and political biases of the “green revolution” (IPES-Food 2015).

Food production increase has been pursued initially through “extensification” and recently through intensification (Gregory et al. 2002; Foley et al. 2011; Garnett et al. 2013). The projections of FAO indicate that an intensification of production may be needed in the coming decades to meet increasing food demand (Bruinsma 2011; Alexandratos and Bruinsma 2012). This is a likely scenario, but not necessarily a desirable one as intensification may increase pressure on the environment and natural resources (Foley et al. 2011; Gladek et al. 2016). Meeting food demand increase poses huge challenges for both food production sustainability and ecosystems integrity (Tilman et al. 2002). Planetary boundaries and unsustainable resource extraction are hard limits to the global agro-food system expansion (Gladek et al. 2016); the agro-food system is the main contributor to the transgression of many planetary boundaries (Rockström et al. 2009; Steffen et al. 2015). Therefore, gains in food production should be made in an environmentally benign way to avoid increasing negative environmental impacts of agriculture (see crop production, animal husbandry, and fisheries) (Gregory and Ingram 2000; Foresight 2011).

According to Tittonell (2014), the search for new models of agricultural intensification able to feed the world, while maintaining ecosystem integrity and enhancing ecosystem services, led to different qualifiers to “intensification” such as “sustainable” intensification, “ecological” intensification, and “eco-functional” intensification (Niggli et al. 2008). In particular, sustainable intensification has provided a mechanism for incorporating a plethora of development agendas, e.g., capital building, resilience to climate change and ecological shocks, stakeholder participation, sustainable development, sustainable livelihoods, and food and nutrition security (Carney 1998; The Montpellier Panel 2013; Rockström et al. 2017). The Food Ethics Council (2012) noted the popularity of sustainable intensification among policy-makers while acknowledging the lack of dialogue about what exactly sustainable intensification is and its effectiveness for sustainable agricultural development.

There are many definitions of sustainable intensification in agriculture. According to Pretty et al. (2011), “Sustainable agricultural intensification is defined as 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.” FAO (2014c) points out that sustainable intensification is a process that combines the conservation of natural resources and protection of ecosystems with ensuring improved livelihoods for smallholders (FAO 2014c). CIRAD (2016) adds that besides agriculture production factors (land, water, labor), sustainable intensification considers intensive use of other assets as new inputs, e.g., human capital/knowledge, innovations, ecosystem services and ecological processes, etc. FAO (2014c) suggests that if intensification shall improve the food and nutrition security of the population, it needs to be adapted to their needs and context. In particular, the specificities of family farmers, women, and indigenous populations should be taken into consideration through their active participation.

In sub-Saharan Africa, sustainable agricultural intensification is presented as a strategy to address the specific challenges facing the region such as food insecurity, yield gaps, unemployment, pressure on land, and climate change (CIRAD 2016). The PROIntensAfrica project (Horizon 2020) identified four different pathways to sustainable intensification of agriculture in Africa (PROIntensAfrica 2017): conventional agriculture pathway, eco-technical pathway, agroecology pathway, and organic agriculture pathway. Therefore, agroecology is presented as one of the pathways for agricultural intensification. In fact, Dobermann and Nelson (2013) call for “agroecological intensification” of food production to increase productivity, make farming an attractive economic opportunity for rural people, preserve the environment, and reduce food waste.


Agroecology is an approach that dates back to the beginning of the twentieth century (Harper 1974). It aims to counteract the negative effects of agriculture intensification and globalization (Altieri 2002, 2009; Gliessman 2006). Agroecology links together science, practice, and social change movements through integration of transdisciplinary, participatory, and change-oriented research and action (Gliessman 2016). Dalgaard et al. (2003) consider agroecology as the study of interactions between living organisms (plants, microorganisms, animals), humans, and the environment within agroecosystems. Recently, food sovereignty and family farming gained momentum within the agroecology discourse (Altieri 2009). More and more civil society organizations and peasants’ movements (e.g., La Via Campesina) propose agroecology as an alternative agro-food system to resist to the growth-oriented innovation in agriculture and rural areas (Rosset and Martinez-Torres 2013). Meanwhile, the notion of agroecology became somehow ambiguous; according to Tittonell (2015), agroecology is now a “buzzword” that describes relations between humans, ecosystems, traditional farming, and innovation/technology.

Francis et al. (2003), Gliessman (2006), and Gliessman and Engles (2015) expanded the understanding and scope of agroecology by putting emphasis on sustainable food systems. Agroecology is considered a strategy for redesigning and transforming the global agro-food system, from the farm to the fork, to achieve environmental, social, and economic sustainability (Gliessman 2015, 2016). In fact, the current agroecological thinking does not criticize only the “green revolution” paradigm but also the whole agro-food regime (Holt-Giménez and Altieri 2013; Elzen et al. 2017). The transformative potential of agroecology is widely recognized nowadays not only by many organic agriculture movements (e.g., IFOAM) but also by international organizations – e.g., FAO (FAO 2015b), UNCTAD, and World Bank – as well as expert panels such as IPES-Food (IPES-Food 2016).

The principles of agroecology (Altieri 1980; Gliessman 1998) inspired a broad family of ecologically minded, alternative agriculture systems such as organic agriculture, biodynamic agriculture, and permaculture.

Policies for Sustainable Agro-Food Production

According to FAO (2014a), transition to sustainable food and agriculture requires four types of action: building relevant and accessible evidence, developing innovative approaches and solutions, engaging stakeholders in dialogue to build common understanding and joint action, and formulating tools and levers to enable changes in food and agricultural systems. Moreover, to foster transition toward sustainability in agriculture and food, the following pillars should underpin the design of practical interventions: integration across scales and disciplines, collaboration, transparency, and adaptability.

Reytar et al. (2014) point out that policies to promote environmental sustainability in agriculture should aim, among others, to reducing agricultural water withdrawals; prioritizing climate-friendly growth of the agricultural sector with low greenhouse gas emissions; limiting or preventing conversion of natural ecosystems (e.g., forests, wetlands) to agricultural land (crop and pasture); promoting soil conservation practices (e.g., conservation agriculture, reduced tillage, windbreaks, agroforestry); promoting nutrient management practices to prevent nutrient runoff or improve soil fertility; and banning or restricting the use of pesticides and toxic chemicals that threaten ecosystems and human health.

FAO developed many sectoral (crops, livestock, forestry, fisheries/aquaculture) and cross-sectoral sustainability frameworks and approaches. Cross-sectoral frameworks include Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA) (FAO 2013c), Sustainable Land Management (SLM), Coping with Water Scarcity Programme, and Energy-Smart Food for People and Climate (ESF) (FAO 2014a). Meanwhile, sectoral approaches comprise “Save and Grow: Sustainable crop production intensification” (FAO 2011), Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock, Sustainable Forest Management (SFM), Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+), and the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (CCRF) (FAO 2014a).

A public consultation was held by the European Commission in summer 2013 on sustainable food consumption and production, to support policy-making in this area (European Commission 2016). As for the topic “Stimulating sustainable food production,” different areas for action were proposed: regional, wholesale markets; seasonally produced food; diversification of cultivated species; extensive, integrated agriculture; organic agriculture; sustainable sourcing of key food commodities; and higher animal welfare standards. The consultation addressed also policy coherence in the area of food. In fact, as food is at the core of human activity, food policies are interconnected to policies in many other areas such as the environment, health, and energy.

Dobermann and Nelson (2013) highlight that policies should be adapted to local contexts as well as the importance of multi-actor collaborations and partnerships in transition toward sustainability in the agro-food sector. For instance, policy interventions for agroecological intensification depend on biophysical and social contexts. Moreover, the public sector, private sector, and civil society must work together to foster agroecological intensification, which requires adequate governance structures and coordination mechanisms.

A key challenge ahead for many countries is the alignment of their agriculture development policies and programs with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as well as the Paris Agreement on climate change. For that, there is need for integrated, evidence-based, and comprehensive policies and governance mechanisms to foster transition toward sustainable, productive, and climate-resilient agriculture. Moreover, countries – developed and developing alike – should review their investment strategies and budget allocations to bring sustainability to the fore in agriculture development. It is also crucial to strengthen cross-sectoral dialogue between the ministry of agriculture and other line ministries (e.g., health, environment) as well as collaboration with the private society and civil society.


Transition toward sustainable agriculture implies deep changes not only in agricultural technologies and practices but also in policies. In order to achieve sustainable agro-food production, it is crucial to develop new farming systems that build on science advances and emphasize a systems-based and holistic approach to production and sharing of knowledge (both scientific/academic and local/traditional knowledge). Such new systems should also pay due attention to the multifaceted interactions and linkages between agriculture and ecosystems that determine the sustainability of natural resources management as well as agroecosystem resilience. These farming systems should favor diversity and build on natural ecosystem strengths. The ultimate challenge for sustainable agro-food production approaches is to find a careful balance between achieving food for all and conserving agroecosystems on which food production – and, consequently, food security – depends. It is also fundamental to develop a shared system for the assessment of environmental, social, and economic sustainability of agriculture at different levels (national, local, farm). Such an indicator system should be appropriate for use by policy-makers, agricultural planners, as well as farmers.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Development ResearchUniversity of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU)ViennaAustria

Section editors and affiliations

  • Mohammad Sadegh Allahyari
    • 1
  1. 1.Dept. of Agricultural ManagementRasht Branch, Islamic Azad University, RashtRashtIran