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Sustainable intensification – “oxymoron” or “third-way”? A systematic review

Mahon, Niamh; Crute, Ian; Simmons, Eunice; Islam, Md Mofakkarul


Niamh Mahon

Ian Crute

Eunice Simmons

Md Mofakkarul Islam


© 2016 Elsevier Ltd Sustainable Intensification (SI) is a term that has been advanced to capture a concept that some consider as the ‘third paradigm’ for global agricultural development. However, the term has become subject to intense debates as well as scepticism and confusion regarding its meaning and the characteristics of production systems that could indicate SI (defined as “indicators”). This has resulted in a proliferation of literature. We have conducted a systematic review of a sample of this literature analysing the most commonly suggested indicators of SI in order to investigate the extent to which the critiques of SI are valid in their viewpoints that SI is an oxymoron, underpinned by a productivist agenda, and to identify the critical issues in the development of a comprehensive and unambiguous set of SI indicators. From 633 articles identified by a search of relevant databases, a sample of 75 articles were selected and analysed using the NVIVO™ software. The results were organised according to a Socio-Ecological Systems (SES) framework comprising seven sub-systems or components − resource system, resource units, governance system, resource users, interactions, outcomes, and environment. A total of 218 indicators (both positive and negative) were identified. Most of these indicators focused on the ‘outcomes’ of agricultural systems with the majority being related to agricultural production. Few indicators were identified as relating to the economic and societal dimensions of food systems. Whilst this potentially suggested a productivist bias in the current interpretation of SI it was difficult to draw a black and white conclusion, since for the other system components, the majority of the indicators suggested appeared to take a more holistic point-of-view and emphasised both productivity and sustainability of agricultural systems. Our analysis suggests that a key reason why SI may be viewed with scepticism is a lack of specificity and elucidation of the rationale, scale, and farm type for which SI is proposed. Moreover, a number of the indicators were so loosely defined that the interventions they imply could be enacted without due consideration of the social impacts of their adoption. We conclude that there is need to develop SI indicators according to specific farming types and scales and also with more consideration of the social and political dimensions of food systems in order to promote a constructive dialogue around the concept of SI to take place. Unless the concept of SI is described and measured in such a holistic and inclusive manner, it is unlikely to be accepted as a valid descriptor of sought-after agricultural practices by players in the Third Sector.


Mahon, N., Crute, I., Simmons, E., & Islam, M. M. (2017). Sustainable intensification – “oxymoron” or “third-way”? A systematic review. Ecological Indicators, 74, 73-97.

Journal Article Type Review
Acceptance Date Nov 2, 2016
Online Publication Date Nov 22, 2016
Publication Date 2017-03
Deposit Date Nov 4, 2021
Journal Ecological Indicators
Print ISSN 1470-160x
Publisher Elsevier
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 74
Pages 73-97
Keywords Agriculture; Sustainable intensification; Indicators; Socio-ecological systems; Systematic review; Meta-analysis
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