Jules Pretty on Sustainable Agriculture

In recent years, there has been a calling for a more sustainable form of agriculture which will successfully feed a growing population whilst reducing the negative impacts on the environment. One such advocate is Jules Pretty, a multidisciplinary academic and author. This paper will look at Pretty’s contribution to the understanding of sustainable agriculture, drawing on his various publications as well as wider literature. It will begin by assessing Pretty’s interpretation of problems associated with modern food production systems, followed by a critique of his proposals.

The Problem

According to Pretty, there is something seriously wrong with our agricultural and food systems today. The food system is “faster, fitter and more streamlined” yet still flawed (2001). Despite advances in aggregate productivity due to events such as the green revolution where new varieties of crop, inputs and infrastructure tripled world agricultural production between 1961-2007 (Pretty et al. 2011), there have been limited reductions to incidences of hunger. Not just that, but just as many people are also experiencing ill health and obesity from eating the wrong sorts of food as those who are still left hungry and malnourished (2002). This is in part due to the fact that as food productivity has grown, simultaneous population growth has meant that per capita food availability has not changed.

However, beyond a simple Malthusian blaming of population, Pretty sees the main problem to be global food systems which “undermine their own success by damaging the health of nature, people and communities” (Ibid.), and identifies several ways in which it does so.

The combined effects of increased privatisation, scale and centralisation of agriculture cause landscapes to become standardised and simplified forming what is known as monocultures which are placeless, inflexible and single-coded. These “fundamentally unhealthy and disconnected” food systems produce “anonymous and homogenous” food and are inherently less resilient as both ecological functions and place-based knowledge are lost, disconnecting cultures and communities from nature (2002). This is a key element of his critique of modern agriculture, as he looks at the etymological origins of Agri-cultura, agri meaning fields, and cultura meaning culture, and argues that culture has become disconnected from nature and replaced by ‘commodity’ (Ibid.).

According to Pretty, modern agriculture fails to take into account its hidden costs to environmental and human health. These are known as externalities, and once considered, they expose the system as highly inefficient, to the extent that we pay three times for our food. Once at the till, once through subsidies to support farmers and agricultural development, and once for cleaning up the environmental and health effects (2002). Global food chains imply distant markets, which are less sensitive to these negative externalities.

Trade and economic policies favour an export-led agriculture, which puts poor countries in competition with one another for market share causing a downward pressure on prices and means that smallholders are less able to access international markets and market information. Combined with the fact that the value of food is increasingly captured by manufacturers, processors and retailers, there is very little of the ‘food pound’ returning to farmers (2001).

In this technologically deterministic agriculture, science and technology are seen to have control over nature, and purchased inputs and technologies are favoured over the free locally available natural-control processes and resources. This means that what were once valued resources have become waste products (2002) as in-country opportunities for agricultural development of local and regional markets are generally ignored (2008). Landscapes are therefore increasingly shaped by non-local and global interests, and cannot respond to particular local needs or change direction when something goes wrong (2002).

For Pretty, the outlook for this modern agriculture is bleak, as increasing population, increasing incomes and the “nutrition transition” (more people eating meat, dairy and westernised diets), as well as further climate changes, put increasing strains on food production.

The Solution

For Pretty, sustainable agriculture is one which “makes the best use of nature’s goods and services while not damaging the environment…by integrating natural processes…within food production processes” (2002), replacing external, expensive inputs with local assets and resources. In order to achieve this, we need to put the culture back into agriculture; that is, reconstruct it in its specific cultural and social systems (Ibid.).

Rather than the prevailing preference for monocultures, Pretty proposes that sustainable agriculture will create ‘diverscapes’; multifunctional and polycultural landscapes which simultaneously produce food, support livelihoods and preserve nature as a result of economic activity, not as a side-line (2002). Just as Pretty advocated a need to take into account the negative externalities of modern agriculture, he also sees the need to emphasise the multifunctionality of sustainable agriculture to expose its contribution to a range of valued public goods such as clean water, wildlife and habitats for beneficial organisms, carbon sequestration in the soil, flood protection, groundwater recharge, landscape amenity value and leisure or tourism (2009).

Sustainable Intensification

Pretty proposes that the route to sustainable agriculture should be through Sustainable Intensification, or SI, a term he coined in the 1990’s in reference to pro-poor, small-holder oriented African agriculture (Garnett and Godfray, 2012). SI is simply using natural, social and human assets combined with the use of best available technologies and inputs that minimise or eliminate harm to the environment (Pretty, 2009). Central to the idea is that we must produce more on less land because the consequences of converting land to agriculture are too great, and production must be sustainable because of negative effects on environment (Garnett and Godfray, 2012).

A few notes on terminology

The term was made popular in the UK Royal Society’s report “Reaping the Benefits” (Garnett and Godfray, 2012) and has since gained momentum as the food system promoted by DEFRA (Fernandes et al. 2014) in their Sustainable Intensification Research Platform (SIP) (National Farming Union, 2014) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) who have integrated it in their Strategic Crop Production Intensification (SCIP) (Food and Agriculture Organization, Unknown).

Unfortunately, like many preceding terminologies surrounding issues of sustainability (indeed, “sustainability” itself), the term has come to carry some baggage, with the word ‘intensification’ largely associated with environmental harm and reduced sustainability (Garnett and Godfray, 2012) and for some, it is an oxymoron (Lewis-Brown and Lymbery, 2012). Lymbery questions whether this latest ‘buzz term’ is actually impeding progress, as it has been hijacked by agri-industrialists and has become misleading (2014).

Three Components of Sustainable Intensification

Pretty identifies three components to this challenge; one is working on the genetic factors of crops and livestock, another is working on the agro-ecology factors (how different components of systems interact and the synergies and services which may be supplied by different components), and finally the social and institutional factors that shape the very systems themselves (Feeding the World, Saving the Planet, 2014). The following paragraphs will therefore evaluate each of these components in context of sustainable agriculture.

Genetic Factors

According to Pretty, real progress can only come from a synthesis of the best of past practices which did not cause damage to environmental or human health, with the best available knowledge and technology today (2002). He states that we must make the best use of any available technology regardless of its provenance or ideological reputation (Pretty et al. 2006). Although some have criticised SI for lacking specific ethical and social issues, as Crute points out, these aspects are not readily transferable across cultures and time and therefore attaching such elements to SI may hamper its ability to spread as a food production system (Garnett and Godfray, 2012a).

For Pretty (2002), genetic engineering has the potential to turn unproductive lands into productive ones and produce healthier food, more weather tolerance and nitrogen-fixing qualities. He views genetic engineering not as a single simple technology but a multifaceted technology capable of bringing different potential benefits for different stakeholders, and whilst he acknowledges that the first generation of GMOs mainly brought benefits for the MNCs producing them, future generations have more potential to be multifunctional and public-good oriented. However, he also stresses the need to approach the subject carefully, drawing evidence from individual case-studies, taking considerations of what the GM technology is replacing and whether it is treating the symptoms rather than the underlying problems (Ibid.)

Friends of the Earth (FOE) criticise genetics as receiving too much focus and being significantly favoured in terms of SI funding. The CGIAR for example spends one third of its budget on GM technology, yet has no evidence about whether it reduces poverty, or its environmental effects- two aspects of SI which Pretty has explicitly emphasised. FOE also critique the fact that proponents of SI also heavily promote liberalised trade, opening up markets of smallholder farmers and export agriculture, and see GM ventures as being simply money-making schemes rather than having any interest in sustainable agriculture, as evidenced by the price increases of crop seeds and royalties paid to MNCs such as Monsanto. (Friends of the Earth International, 2012).

However, GM must be looked at in context of Pretty’s stance on technology, which he states must be locally available and affordable to poor farmers, a participatory process enhancing farmer’s ecological literacy, and must necessarily be ingrained in local culture and traditions if it is to take root (2002). He expresses similar concerns for the vertical integration of corporations and the growing concentration at every stage of the food chain, and states that attention must be paid to power relations and property rights, benefit sharing and careful consideration that GM technologies don’t eliminate alternatives (2002).

Pasekoff criticises Pretty’s evaluation of genetic modification as being poor and insufficient in explaining scientific studies, and recommends a better understanding of commercial seed quality standards and maize population genetics (2013). Nevertheless, Pretty does not profess to be an expert in such areas, and perhaps wisely omits more scientific analyses, instead opting to simply set the conditions in which approaches to GM technology should be made.


Pretty takes an agroecological perspective to highlight the benefits of relocating agriculture in its ecosystem and integrating ecological processes. Multifunctionality is central to Pretty’s interpretation of agroecosystems, which despite being primarily seen to produce food and fibre, are also part of wider landscapes serving a variety of important ecosystem functions (2009). Key to Pretty’s ideas is that any improvements will be caused by a synergy of many elements rather than a single intervention (Campbell, 2004), and increased outputs can only be achieved through multiplicative strategies. (Pretty et al. 2011).

Pretty uses the interrelated concepts of bioregionalism and food sheds as a way to explain this reorganisation of food production. Bioregionalism is the “integration of human activities within ecological limits. A self-organising concept that connects people and place” while foodsheds are area-based groundings to “the production, movement and consumption of food”. Together they offer shorter supply chains and ensure more of the food pound gets back to the famers, offering opportunities to recreate some of the connections within food systems (2002).

He lists four types of technical improvements for increases in agro-ecological food production: soil health improvements, efficient water use, pest and weed control (with reduced pesticides), and whole system redesigns. These could include practices such as integrated pest management, integrated nutrient management, conservation tillage, cover crops, agroforestry, aquaculture, water-harvesting, livestock reintegration (2009). Together, these can harness the strengths of natural ecosystem services in order to increase yield and sustainability.

Despite criticism for its lack of concern for participation (Friends of the Earth International, 2012) participatory processes and learning are actually a fundamental part of his SI vision as he sees dominant scientific methods as being unsuitable for such occasions when uncertainties are high and problems are subject to interpretation (1995).

The reorganisation of food production to integrate agroecological aspects will be costly and difficult for farmers. They must invest money and time in learning about these diverse practices and measures and implement them largely through a process of trial and error in order to achieve the required knowledge (2009). Pretty also sees this new knowledge and understanding as a way to tie people to the land and to one another. He praises traditional knowledge of landscapes and nature as a valid source of information for communities engaging in in sustainable practices, and his value for Eastern and Indigenous knowledge could be considered highly ecocentric. However, he notes ‘traditional’ as a social process of learning and sharing knowledge rather than a body of knowledge (2002). Pretty states that nature exists, but its meaning is socially constructed, so it must change over time and according to different people. Therefore by embracing different social processes of learning about nature, perhaps we can change its meaning to something that will protect it.

In order to combat the damaging effects of global interests on local landscapes, Pretty advocates localising food production, through a variety of mechanisms such as community supported agriculture, farmers’ groups, regionalised food systems, consumer cooperatives, community gardens and food webs (2001), and by replacing external (expensive) inputs with local free natural control mechanisms. This has its advantages but also must be approached with caution, as such efforts can sometimes be reactionary and defensive against a perceived external threat from globalisation, leading to exclusiveness and rejection of difference. It can also mask the local as a potential site of inequality, and can be conflict with other global citizenships where food-exporting developing countries rely on global trade for income (Seyfang, 2006).

Considering livestock from an agroecological perspective can also to a certain extent respond to many of the arguments surrounding sensitive issues of intensive livestock farming such as animal welfare (Lewis-Brown and Lymbery, 2012). For Pretty, we must change the way animals are raised on the premise that detrimental effects of livestock farming such as GHG emissions, inefficient and intensive inputs of cereals which could otherwise be used to fed humans (he uses the same arguments to advocate an end to crop use for biofuels) are too great. He suggests that there is actually enough staple food produced to feed everyone, but the problem is that it is used to feed animals (2009). Pretty’s use of intensification here can be seen to imply raising animals in multifunctional and mixed production systems, using foods and by-products that would not have been consumed by humans, rather than in the sense of actually increasing the yield of animals.

Social and Institutional Factors

In order to instigate any change, Pretty emphasises the importance of getting people working together and the role of social institutions in providing stability. He argues that in order to make agricultural systems more capable of innovating in the face of uncertainty such as climate or changes in societal needs, we need high social and human capital levels (2009). He calls for new platforms and forms of organisation for common action, and social institutions based on trust, reciprocity and agreed norms and rules for behaviour in order to mediate unfettered private action (Pretty and Ward, 2001).

Pretty highlights the importance of collective action by producers and consumers, and believes that food should be recognised as another type of commons. He deplores the recent replacement of collective action by policies which focus on individual behaviour and changing property regimes (2002), and argues against popular theories such as Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons (1968) which claim that traditional local commons and resource management is inherently destructive. Modernisation has caused our links with and sense of ownership of food to be undermined (2002) causing the real ‘Tragedy’ to be that we over-consume and under-invest in these commons. If we re-establish this sense of ownership and dependency however, Pretty claims that humans are more likely to care for common property.

Peter Stevenson sees SI as increasingly focusing on production rather than consumption, and quantity rather than quality (Lymbery, 2014), and Garnett and Godfray question whether such a focus will stimulate demand (2012). Pretty does however acknowledge consumption and believes that our decisions can play an important role in shaping systems of food production, politicising consumption as “we buy a system of production when we purchase its food” (2002). He looks at how localised cultural values can be used as a tool for maintaining certain consumption behaviours, such as cultural values of vegetarianism in India and low consumption among Amish communities. Through “cultural moulding”, these behaviours can be locked in through different political, social and fiscal means (2013).

Tudge further challenges Pretty’s assumption that the changing in demographics and expectations are inevitable, and especially that people are behaving how they really want to behave. He claims that in reality, people adapt to the status quo; “in an economy geared towards consumption, they consume” (Garnett and Godfray, 2012a). However Pretty does infact acknowledge that there are also many structural economic constraints which determine and limit the power of consumers (2002).

Garnett (2013) also questions the philosophy of ‘more’ implicated in SI, yet arguably the ‘need’ for SI is independent of the ‘need’ to produce more food (Garnett and Godfray, 2012), as perhaps more importantly than simply producing more food, it is about producing food on less land in a sustainable way. This is highlighted by Tudge, who states (in Garnett and Godfray, 2012a) “whether or not the world really needs more food […] who can reasonably doubt that in principle, this should be a good thing to do?”.

Friends of the Earth also criticise SI as being a ‘business-as-usual’ approach with insufficient efforts to tackle environmental problems, failing to take into account power, profit, and politics in the food system (Friends of the Earth International, 2012). However, Pretty infact states that any systemic change requires questions of such power and politics. He advocates a decentralisation of power through participation and social learning, and radical policy reforms in order to internalise the hidden costs of agriculture, stressing the need for regulatory, legal, institutional and economic instruments (2002). He asks important questions of who produces food, who has access to the knowledge and technology to produce it and the purchasing power to acquire it, as well as who tells the “landscape stories”. If the powerful are the ones defining and paying for their vision, then this will inevitably affect the outcome (2002).


When concepts are offered which do not necessarily provide a detailed guideline of how to get from A to B, there is often much opposition from us. Perhaps because we desire really to be told exactly what to do. But issues such as this are so complex and as Pretty says, there are no blueprints- no concretely defined technologies or practices which are suitable for everywhere (Pretty et al. 2011). While he may not offer widely-applicable instructions, this is precisely the strength of his work, allowing flexibility in how different locales can achieve sustainability and using it as a process for social learning rather than an end result (2009). It is also perhaps a responsibility which he wishes to instil in his readers, to look at case studies in context of their spatial and temporal context and, referring back to his own interpretation of SI which provides a framework for “exploring what mix of approaches might work best” (Garnett and Godfray, 2001).

Perhaps his proposal of SI can afford to be a little more radical, and more explicit of consumers’ agency to change current demographic trends and dietary changes. Further analyses into his idea of “cultural moulding” could offer valuable insight into how this could happen, both as bottom-up approaches and top-down.

We need to expose underlying assumptions that ‘intensification’ is favoured over ‘sustainable’, that it implies a specific system of production, and that it is inherently bound up with a ‘need’ to produce more food (Garnett and Godfray, 2012), in order to be able to create the platform for more creative thinking around Sustainable Intensification.


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