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Publication review: Sustainable intensification in drylands: What Resilience and Vulnerability can tell us


In a world with a fast-growing population, agricultural intensification is addressed as a key strategy to produce more food without increasing the claim for land. In dry areas, where traditional agricultural systems are mainly extensive, the application of standard models of agricultural intensification can have significant environmental and socio-economic implications. In these areas promoting sustainable intensification interventions is as much critical as challenging.  

One of the major goals of Dryland System is to develop concepts for sustainable intensification in drylands. In dry areas unique environmental and socio-ecologic characteristics pose challenges in intensify production without exacerbating vulnerability. The recently published article “Sustainable intensification in drylands: What resilience and vulnerability can tell us” invite us to rethink the standard concepts of agricultural intensification and suggest how to shape them in order to make them more suitable for agricultural systems in drylands.

We outline three principles for conceptualizing sustainable intensification in dryland systems. In so doing, we recognize the multiple functions of agriculture for development, which include contributions to food security and environmental services, in addition to the more traditional goals of economic growth and poverty reduction. Unless this kind of broader, multi-dimensional understanding can inform efforts toward intensification in drylands, recognizing that in drylands intensification will look very different than it is in so-called “high potential” areas, intensification has little hope of being sustainable.

The authors use concepts from vulnerability and to social-ecological resilience thinking to outline new principles useful to understand what sustainable intensification means in dry areas and how to address it, in particular in traditional extensive systems. The three principles are reported below:

  • First principle: Intensity and vulnerability are distinct characteristics

According to the authors, the concept of vulnerability can be used as analytical tool for exploring all the dimensions of sustainability in relation to agricultural intensification. Intensification and vulnerability are closely connected, but the relationship between the phenomena is interpreted differently by research strands. Many research bodies for example see vulnerability and intensification as the opposite ends of a single continuum. The resulting concept is that when vulnerability is high, intensification is difficult or impossible. This theory have different implications: in drylands, for example, the intrinsic social and environmental vulnerability could diminish the interest of development actors to promote agricultural intensification in these areas.

On the contrary, in areas with high potential for intensification intervention can be applied without considering the possible risks of deepen the vulnerability of the socio-ecological system. The first principle of the authors therefore stresses the importance of distinguishing vulnerability and intensification as two district characteristics of the system. Recognizing these as variables and assessing them with their own factors and indicators is critical to examine the interactions and feedbacks between them and evaluate how these change in space and time.

  • Second principle: Intensity is not the inverse of extensivity

The second principle states the importance of characterizing systems based on the degree of intensity and extensivity, without using these characteristics as direct measures of either vulnerability or productivity. Within agricultural intensification concepts, intensity is often perceived as the inverse of extensivity. As a result, extensive systems in dryland systems don’t receive attention as potential areas where agricultural intensification can be achieved. Alternatively, they are transformed into different, non-extensive systems with significant environmental and socio-economic costs.

On the contrary, in the article it is stressed that in dry areas it is possible “to increase productivity and reduce vulnerability by simultaneously enhancing both the extent and the intensity of the agricultural system”. Agricultural development programs in drylands should therefore aim to re-extentify or preserve the extensivity of the traditional production systems while increasing inputs into animal health or insurance systems rather than inputs like irrigation, fertilization or improved seed packages.

  • Third principle: Vulnerability and intensification each need to be considered at multiple levels

The third principle states that vulnerability and intensification need to be assessed at different levels of scale, as they can differ from household to system level. The authors also recommend not to assess vulnerability and intensification in relation to a geographic area, as in dry areas a multitude of livelihoods and production systems can coexist within the same geographic zone.  Ultimately, possible heterogeneity within systems and cross-scale interactions can influence differently the impacts of intensification interventions in drylands, therefore this must also be considered when assessing vulnerability and intensification potential.

In drylands it is critical to support interventions suitable with the unique characteristics of these areas. The article present three principles useful to evaluate policies, interventions or programs that promote agricultural intensification in drylands considering all the dimensions of sustainability: environmental, social and economic. To read in depth these and other recommendations of authors to successfully address sustainable intensification in drylands, download the full article here.


The study reviewed in this blog was supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems. The study was authored by Lance W. Robinson, Polly J. Ericksen, Sabrina Chesterman and Jeffrey S.Worden.

About the author

Martina Antonucci is the Science Communications and Knowledge Management intern at the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems.