Ideas for Sustainability

(by Jacqueline Loos, Dave Abson and Joern Fischer)

An increasing number of publications address the issue of food security in the context of a rapidly growing human population. In many such papers, sustainable intensification is implicitly presented as a panacea to meet increasing future demand for food. We are concerned that “sustainable intensification” is used a bit too loosely, for example in the article “Closing yield gaps through nutrient and water management” by Mueller et al. (Nature 490, 254-257; 2012).

Mueller et al. suggest that the environmental impacts of increases in irrigation and nitrogen application can be mitigated by reduced nitrogen application elsewhere; in a process they term ‘sustainable intensification’. We suggest that balancing global nutrient loads is an insufficient criterion to merit use of the term ‘sustainable’. The negative effects of fertilization on plant species richness are persistent, and decreasing fertilization in high nitrogen agroecosystems are unlikely to…

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