While there is a growing consensus among policymakers that sustainable intensification is needed to square the circle of feeding a growing global population while avoiding damage to the environment, there has been very little evidence that it can work in the developed world.
Researchers at the University of Leeds and the agricultural consultancy ADAS looked at the food productivity and the environmental impact of 20 innovative British farms between 2006 and 2011.
They identified three farms that achieved sustainable intensification in the period and one borderline case.
Professor Leslie Firbank, Senior Research Fellow in the University of Leeds' Faculty of Biological Sciences, said: "This is the first strong evidence that sustainable intensification has been achieved in an industrial country. When we started, we didn't expect to see any evidence of sustainable intensification. Some might say it is cloud cuckoo stuff--food production goes up, the environment gets better, everybody is happy - but this study makes clear that it can be and is being done."
The researchers looked at food production (energy produced per square hectare), nitrate pollution to water, ammonia pollution to the air, the farm's carbon footprint and a measure of biodiversity.
One large commercial potato farm, Cargill Farms near Norwich, increased its food production (gigajoules per hectare) by 33 percent between 2006 and 2011, but reduced its carbon footprint by 2 percent. Nitrate water pollution fell by 13 percent, ammonia air pollution was cut by 30 percent and biodiversity also improved.
A second farm had even more impressive figures, with a 52 percent increase in food production, a 27 percent reduction in its carbon footprint, a 13 percent fall in nitrate pollution, a 27 percent cut in ammonia pollution and an improvement in biodiversity, albeit from a low baseline.
Another farm recorded an 18 percent increase in food production and significant improvements in all of the environmental measures
Professor Firbank said: "We knew sustainable intensification could work in developing countries, where the paradigm comes from. If you build up the soil and manage water better on a degraded farm in a poor country, you will often get better production and a better environment. However, it is a totally different question whether similar results can be achieved on well-organised, highly commercial farms in Britain."
Firbank added: "What came through loud and clear from working with these farms is that farmers will do sustainable intensification if it makes business sense. They are not trying to save the world. Reduction of carbon emissions and pollution control was fitting these farmers' business models."
Many of the innovative farms in the study that did not achieve sustainable intensification were pursuing different strategies. One turned organic, which resulted in very significant improvements in environmental impact but also a fall in food production. Another switched to strawberry cultivation, which also reduced the energy value of its production.
The research was funded by Land Use Policy Group, which represents the UK's statutory nature conservation, countryside and environment agencies.
Graham Askew, Simon Walker, BBSRC (Jan 2018), £699,781
Jennifer Tomlinson, Royal Society (Jan 2018), £512,801
Jennifer Tomlinson, Royal Society-Research Fellows Enhancement Award (Dec 2017), £94,681
Helen Miller, AB AGri Grant (Dec 2017), £73,600
Simon Walker, Royal Society Enhancement Award (Dec 2017), £10,000
Carrie Ferguson, Bryan Taylor, Harry Rossiter, The Physiological Society (Dec 2017), £7,392
Ralf Richter, Royal Society (Dec 2017), £6,000
Christine Foyer, British Council Newton Fund (Dec 2017), £49,840
Adrian Whitehouse and colleagues in School of Chemistry and University of Liverpool, MRC (Nov 2017), £622,319
Michelle Peckham, Neil Ransom, MRC (Nov 2017), £495,159
Dave Lewis, British Council India (Nov 2017), £22,540
Elton Zeqiraj, Royal Society (Nov 2017), £15,000
Hannah Dugdale, Royal Society (Nov 2017), £15,000
Shaunna Burke, Cancer Research UK Innovation Grant (Nov 2017), £20,000
Alex O'Neill and colleagues in Chemistry, BBSRC (Nov 2017), £431,865
Jessica Kwok, Wings for Life (Nov 2017), £87,365
Tom Bennett, BBSRC (Oct 2017), £523,679
Neil Ranson, Darren Tomlinson, BBSRC (Oct 2017), £494,318
Nikita Gamper, BBSRC (Oct 2017), £490,426
Amanda Bretman and colleagues from UEA, NERC (Oct 2017), £430,886
Juan Fontana, Rosetrees Trust consumables grant (Oct 2017), £22,500
Helen Miller, DSM Nutritional Products AG (Sep 2017), £69,988
Neil Ranson, Juan Fontana, Mark Harris, Michelle Peckham, Ralf Richter, Peter Stockley, Patricija Van Oosten-Hawle and colleagues in Engineering, FMH and MAPS, Wellcome Trust Equipment Call (Sep 2017), £418,000
Jamie Johnston, Physiological Society (Sep 2017), £10,000
Frank Sobott, Adrian Goldman, Mark Harris, Andrew Macdonald, Stephen Muench, Sheena Radford and colleagues in FMH and MAPS, Wellcome Trust Equipment Call (Aug 2017), £415,000
Ralf Richter, David Brockwell, Eric Hewitt, Jessica Kwok, Emanuele Paci and MAPS/FMH, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £600,000
Eric Blair, Adrian Whitehouse, Nicola Stonehouse, Alison Baker, Richard Bayliss, Joan Boyes, Ryan Seipke, Sally Boxall and MAPS/FMH, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £376,000
Stefan Kepinski, Yoselin Benitez-Alfonso, Tom Bennett, Michelle Peckham, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £331,000
Roman Tuma, Lars Jeuken, Paul Millner, Sheena Radford, Peter Stockley and MAPS/FMH, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £222,000
Vas Ponnambalam, Darren Tomlinson, Stephen Wheatcroft, BHF (May 2017), £107,878
Graham Askew in collaboration with Bangor University, BBSRC (Mar 2017), £477,383
Stephen Muench, BBSRC (Mar 2017), £132,945
Nic Stonehouse, MRC (Mar 2017), £906,341
Bill Kunin, Steve Sait, BBSRC (Mar 2017), £602,831
Adrian Goldman, EU (Mar 2017), £546,576
Sheena Radford, Wellcome Trust (Mar 2017), £1,836,482
Beatrice Filippi, Royal Society (Mar 2017), £15,000
Tom Bennett, Royal Society (Mar 2017), £15,000
Jamie Johnston, Royal Society (Mar 2017), £15,000
Ryan Seipke, BBSRC (Feb 2017), £52,116
Mary O'Connell, BBSRC (Feb 2017), £46,986
Hannah Dugdale, NERC (Feb 2017), £504,138
Anastasia Zhuravleva, EPSRC (Jan 2017), £100,792