Trade-offs: we cannot have it all, or can we?

Image by Tim Daniels | Flickr

Meeting the food demands of a global population expected to increase to 9.1 billion by 2050, will require major changes in agricultural production systems. Future agricultural growth and food security will be driven by both demand and supply factors. On the demand side, demand for and prices of food, feed, fertilizer, energy, land and water; emissions mitigation and carbon sequestration; population growth, urbanization and ecosystem services will influence agricultural markets and food security.

From the supply side, climate change; water and land scarcity; science and technology policy; investment in agricultural research and management and governance reform that affect agricultural outputs, will be critical factors.

Any agricultural system which is going to address these increasing pressures must also take into account the following factors:

  • Ecological – to enhance and use local ecosystem resources; develop and preserve biodiversity and valuable habitats; understand more effectively our relationship and interaction with nature; global commitments (Rio 20+, Nagoya); etc.
  • Economic – to understand food prices and the value of the environment reflected in the price; integration of a green economy; economic perspectives on agricultural sustainability that value ecological assets; trading and offsetting resources; trade distorting subsidies; etc.
  • Social and political – to identify the barriers and access to affordable food and water; the equity of technological change; engagement; group action and promotion of local institutions, culture and farming communities; political stability; etc.

The relative values that people place on different trade-offs between these three dimensions vary over time and place. Achieving a balance between them is one of the greatest challenges to achieving agricultural sustainability.

It is widely accepted that in seeking to address the need to produce more food from less resources, certain trade-offs will have to be made. How do we set the priorities and balance local needs, such as access to affordable food, safe and pleasant housing and access to nature, with the big global pressures of living beyond the ecological parameters of the world. As an industry, it is clear that we will have to think very hard about what these trade-offs are and how we assess them as well as our resulting decisions, how we make them, the timescales and their consequences.


  • What are the wider issues that are influencing the decisions we make?
  • What are the potential trade-offs?
  • What factors need to be included in our assessment of trade-offs?
  • What package of information and issues do farmers and landowners need to consider in making rational decisions?
  • Where is the power?
  • Who should make such decisions?
  • What are the consequences of these decisions to wider society?

On Tuesday, we asked members of LEAF’s Policy and Strategic Development Committee to discuss these issues of Agricultural Trade-offs and Synergies. What are your thoughts? Comment below and let us know on twitter or facebook.


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