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.
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