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What when it’s at home is sustainable intensification?

What does DEFRA’s latest buzz-word actually mean?

The latest buzzword from DEFRA is “sustainable intensification”. It sounds like an oxymoron. To be fair, though, it could be interpreted to mean something useful; or it can, as DEFRA itself has demonstrated, serve simply to provide a high-sounding label to slap on to business as usual – which, for all the promises of radical change, remains the principal goal of government, or indeed the sine qua non. 

I am privileged to know some very fine biologists, and some outstanding agriculturalists including many farmers. I have also met quite a few who make agricultural policy, or at least have direct input.

But I know no-one who ticks all three boxes: who is a seriously good biologist, and a seriously good agriculturalist, and has any direct influence on policy. In Britain, senior politicians who are appointed ostensibly to frame policy make a virtue of not knowing. The myth is that this helps them to be objective. In practice when they take the job they mug up in double quick time by reading the summaries of official reports and talking to the people they perceive to be the most important – like the heads of big industries, and professors of research (financed by those industries) and the agri-businesspeople of the NFU. Then they cobble it all together and come up with expressions like “sustainable development”, or indeed “sustainable intensification” that can be interpreted any which way – any way that is politically and commercially convenient.

We, humanity and the world, can’t go on like this – not, that is, if we are seriously concerned about the future of our children, and other people’s children, and other species, and the fabric of the Earth at large. Government for its own sake, and policy by slogan, just won’t do.