A strong case for diversity: Implementing sustainable agriculture
For nine years the ILEIA has been publishing many cases on development towards Sustainable Agriculture. LEISA, Organic Agriculture and other alternative approaches are steadily gaining ground. But is there scope for a wider application than in isolated cases of success? And what are opportunities and constraints for development of sustainable agriculture? In this issue several authors analyse experiences with implementing sustainable agriculture. This editorial, supplemented with the opinions of some resource persons, tries to give an overview.
ILEIA Newsletter • 9 nº 4 • December 1993
A strong case for diversity
Implementing sustainable agriculture
For nine years the ILEIA Newsletter has been publishing many cases on development towards Sustainable Agriculture. LEISA, Organic Agriculture and other alternative approaches are steadily gaining ground. But is there scope for a wider application than in isolated cases of success? And what are opportunities and constraints for development of sustainable agriculture? In this Newsletter several authors analyse experiences with implementing sustainable agriculture. This editorial, supplemented with the opinions of some resource persons, tries to give an overview.
Two directions of changeIn the past decades, agricultural change has been strongly influenced by "modernisation". Market demand for agricultural products and degree of profitability of "modern" inputs determine, to a great extent, the technology approach and input level. For example, in Machakos and Taua (Mortimore et al, p6, von der Weid, p3) the use of "modern" external inputs is risky and not profitable, especially not for subsistence crops. In Thailand (Levin and Panyakul, p11), cash crop production seems to be profitable on short term. Because good wages can be earned in other sectors of the economy, labour is relatively scarce and expensive, which triggers the use of "modern" inputs and mechanisation. This also shows that development in other economic sectors, like industry, has strong influence on agricultural development. Rural-urban migration is also important, as it increases the distance between producers and consumers and hence makes recycling of organic waste relatively expensive which again favours farmers' choice for chemical fertilisers. For individual farmers the margins for technology choice are often very small. These examples show that there are two main directions of change, the extremes of which can be indicated as:
- "Green Revolution" Agriculture (GRA), characterised by the use of relatively high levels of chemical fertilisers, pesticides, improved seeds, irrigation, mechanisation, specialisation and market orientation. This development is taking place in regions where production conditions are relatively favourable and homogeneous and where both market and input supply are well organised and prices are favourable.
- Low-External-Input Agriculture (LEIA), characterised by the use of "traditional" techniques and subsistence orientation as "modern" inputs are unavailable or unprofitable. This development is taking place in regions with less favourable conditions, with relatively high diversity and complexity, where risk factors are high, the commercial system is underdeveloped or foreign currency to import agricultural inputs is scarce.
However, both directions can be found in one farm, for example, LEIA for subsistence crops and GRA for commodity crops. Change of economic conditions may strongly determine technology choice. In India (Santhakumar, p33), subsidies on chemical fertilisers and irrigation are being withdrawn. This means for many farmers that the use of these external inputs becomes unprofitable and that they have to become Low-External-Input farmers again.
Sustainability threatenedIn his comments on this editorial Mr. Virmani makes clear that GRA is being confronted with serious problems which threaten sustainability. However, in LEIA the problems are not less. Degradation of the natural resource base and decreasing productivity are widely spread.
"The Asian region has witnessed an unprecedented growth in crop production and in its food security, in spite of tremendous increases in population, over the past quarter century. Considerable adoption of high-yielding crop cultivars and improved production systems have occurred particularly in the well endowed irrigated agriculture. This has had its negative side-effects. Asian agriculture, which used to be quite diverse, is currently mainly based on cereals. Bio-diversity has suffered a serious blow. Growing populations have worsened the fragmentation of the resource base. Human induced degradation of natural resources is everywhere in the Asian green revolution areas.
Soil erosion and water scarcity increased. Due to rapidly increasing industrial development and increasing incomes, labour shortages have forced farmers to use increasing quantities of pesticides to control weeds, insects and diseases. Nutrient deficiencies which used to be limited to nitrogen and phosphate, now include several micronutrients and sulphur. The salinization of soils increased. More and more external inputs are used to sustain current levels of production. The increase in productivity of most cereal crops in Asia has come to an end. Some experiments conducted at IRRI showed that total annual yield of continuous rice-based farming systems declines. The reason: soil exhaustion and build-up of toxic elements. Low-external-input approaches to sustain productivity will be important for small farmers in Asia. Organic farming and diversification of agriculture are the two most obvious answers to the above problems."
International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics
Patancheru, Andhra Pradesh 502 324, India
Approaches towards sustainabilityThere is a wide diversity of approaches towards sustainable agriculture. But starting from GRA and LEIA, two main directions can be distinguished. We call them here "Integrated Green Revolution Agriculture" (IGRA) and Low-External-Input and Sustainable Agriculture (LEISA). A third main direction is Organic Agriculture (OA). Most of the approaches fit more or less in this broad subdivision.
Integrated "Green Revolution" AgricultureTo feed a fast growing population, increase of production is unavoidable. This increase must be achieved on less land, with less labour, less water and less pesticides. Intensification is deemed possible by raising the maximum yield of improved seeds and higher use of fertilisers combined with increased efficiency in using nutrients, pesticides, water and labour. Integrated strategies of plant nutrition, pest, weed and water management (e.g. IPNS, IPM, IWM) are being developed for this purpose, to reduce costs and to limit damage to environment and human health. Genetic modification is expected to contribute considerably to production increase in the coming years.
Low-External-Input and Sustainable AgricultureWhere "modern" external inputs are not available or profitable, farming has to depend on optimal use of local resources, human and animal labour, ecological processes, recycling and site-specific genetic resources. Production levels have to be raised, but at the same time it is necessary to stop depletion and degradation of the resource base (soil, nutrients, vegetation cover, genetic resources, indigenous knowledge and social cohesion). Self-reliance, local economies, strong local institutions and local "agri-culture" are important to prevent loss of sustainability. Intensification and increase of efficiency is possible, to a certain extent, by natural nitrogen fixation, mobilisation and concentration of nutrients, diversification and better integration of different elements and activities. However, an important precondition is that nutrient flows are kept in balance. Where natural external inputs, such as sediments and biomass from outside the farm, are scarce and populations are growing fast, "modern" external inputs may be needed, e.g. to compensate for unavoidable losses of nutrients, to invest in soil fertility, to repair degradation or to bring severe pest attacks under control. However, they should be used prudently and strategically, complementary to natural external and internal inputs.
"LEISA is not a categorical plea for decreasing the use of external inputs but a recognition of their scarcity and a strategy to promote, within that context, adequate agricultural development. The challenge is to reach a balanced combination of sustainable farming systems with high- and low-external-input levels, depending on the specific agroecological context. The choice of interventions will depend on the carrying capacity of the ecosystem and thus on the limits this system puts to the mode of exploitation. Of course, the choice also depends on what is feasible in socio-economic terms. Moreover, the choice will be determined by the demand for sustainable food security within the region. Our policy will emphasise the further differentiated elaboration of the potential of low-external-input agriculture for different ecological zones (humid, semi-arid and mountainous ecosystems) and for areas with a different level of exploitation and degradation of natural resources. Accordingly, much attention will be paid to traditional agricultural systems and to the socio-cultural context of indigenous farming societies. Attention will also be paid to improving agriculture in areas where high levels of external inputs are common. In these areas, the emphasis will be on promoting ecologically sound farming methods in production systems that are based on intensive use of external inputs, with the aim to promote sustainable use of the natural resources while maintaining or improving the existing productivity. Activities in the field of integrated crop protection and integrated plant nutrition are good examples promoting ecologically sound use of inputs."
Source: A world in dispute: a survey of the limits of development cooperation (Een wereld in geschil; De grenzen van de ontwikkelingssamenwerking verkend). Policy document, Directorate General for International Cooperation, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Hague, 1993. Translation by ILEIA.
Organic AgricultureOther proponents of sustainable agriculture are convinced that chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides should not be used at all. Organic agriculture is seen as the only viable option in the long run. Chemicals may be necessary in the transition period, but their use should be reduced gradually and in the end stopped altogether. Farming practices should comply with standards that guarantee that they are ecologically sound and socially just. OA can be market as well as subsistence oriented.
"Of these three types of agricultural ideologies for the future, the most extreme form is organic farming and its great merits and disadvantages are familiar to all of us. Born out of philosophical and serious concerns for soil destruction, pollution and loss of bio-diversity, this method has obviously strongest support in the North. Potential benefits for developing countries could grow tremendously, if food quality standards would very drastically limit the use of pesticides. So far, the markets have been too narrow for organic products, offering developing countries few real opportunities. Nevertheless, knowledge of organic processes is what counts. Techniques based on these organic processes should as much as possible contribute to LEISA and IGRA solutions.
As far as LEISA and IGRA are concerned, they are located, on the scale of agricultural technology mixes, somewhere between OA and GRA. One approach is obviously more concerned with conservation of soil, water and vegetation than the other. Biological processes are fundamental to LEISA. But with IGRA certainly the realisation has dawned that agriculture is not just a physical or chemical laboratory. My choice would be further development of LEISA with proper resource accounting. Close dialogue and benefiting from IGRA and OA experience would improve the image and marketability of LEISA. National, regional and global choices have to be based on the transparency of agro-ecological facts and the long-term economic viability. In future, it will be important to share the discussion on long-term solutions with the farming, rural population and consumers, but it should not be dominated by urban politicians, experts, international traders of commodities and academic wisdom."
F. Mumm v Mallinckrodt, Principal Technical Adviser on Sustainable Agriculture, United Nations Development Programme, Bureau for Programme Policy and Evaluation, 1 United Nations Plaza, New York, NY 10017, USA.
Similarities and differencesThese approaches are similar in their concern for sustainability, sound plant, animal and land husbandry, and efficient use of resources and inputs. They differ in the extent to which internal inputs, such as human and animal labour, recycling of nutrients and preventive means of pest management can, for economic and ecological reasons, be replaced or supplemented by "modern" (IGRA) or natural (commercial OA) external inputs. As opposed to IGRA and commercial OA, which are market and profit oriented, LEISA has to put main emphasis on self-sufficiency and local markets to make recycling of nutrients and organic matter possible. IGRA and LEISA are complementary. Under favourable production conditions, the pressure to develop IGRA is very strong. Under less favourable conditions, development towards LEISA seems to be unavoidable to prevent degradation and extensivation. However, IGRA and LEISA are two extremes which can be combined in many different ways.
Diversity of solutions needed"The proximity of formal research, as a creation of western science, to commerce and industry has narrowed the options it can offer to farmers. We need to open up the research horizons and seek a diversity of solutions. Greater choice for farmers must overtake the habit of polishing a single answer to perfection. Classic experimentation has come to overlook the very variability that brought it such authority. The details change, often on the next field, certainly on the next farm. The range of choices can be expanded quickly, both by looking back into history and by understanding what other farming communities under heavier pressures have done.
Mike Collinson, Consultive Group on International Agricultural Research, 1818 H St, NW, 2433 Washington DC, USA.
Questions to be answeredStill many questions can be raised about technical aspects of all approaches. For example, will it be possible in the process towards IGRA:
- to bring the mis- and over-use of chemicals down to an acceptable level?
- to raise input use efficiency per unit of land sufficiently to keep pollution at an acceptable level?
- to have sufficient energy and nutrient inputs available at acceptable prices without depleting the reserves?
- to maintain or increase genetic diversity at a sufficiently high level?
Will it be possible in the process towards LEISA:
- to maintain the nutrient balance within the system?
- to increase labour productivity?
- to incorporate effective buffers to prevent erosion and minimise climate, pest and market related risks?
- to increase production of food, starch as well as proteins and vitamins?
Will it be possible in further development of commercial OA:
- to cope effectively with pests and diseases in an organic way, i.e. without using chemical pesticides?
- to obtain sufficient natural external nutrient inputs without depleting soil fertility of other farms?
Neither one of the approaches will suffice to feed the fast growing population of the world on its own. Therefore, balanced investments in the further development of all approaches is necessary.
Actors and factorsThe performance of farming systems not only depends on technology but also on many other factors and actors. To enhance sustainability these factors and actors have to interact in such a way that optimal performance of the farming system will be the result. The articles in this Newsletter present some indications about which factors and actors are important in particular situations:
- During the period 1930-90 land use in Machakos District, Kenya, remained more or less sustainable. Mortimore et al. (p6) analysed which factors and techniques enhanced sustainability. Secure land tenure rights created favourable conditions for investments in improving the land. Soil and water conservation clearly plays an important role just as other appropriate techniques such as agroforestry, zero grazing and the use of organic fertilisers. Investments in these techniques have been stimulated by the production of cash crops (coffee, vegetables, milk) and by remittances from relatives working in nearby cities. Production for self-sufficiency in maize on at least 80% of the land is probably also an important factor as this enhances recycling of nutrients and organic matter at a relatively high level. The role of women and self-help groups proved to be crucial. Support provided by churches, NGOs, Integrated Rural Development Projects and extension agencies and their close cooperation, just as favourable government policies and funding from national sources and from abroad also contributed to adapting and sustaining land use.
- A high degree of responsibility for management of natural resources at the level of local communities showed to be of crucial importance in India (Chandy et al, p26). In Taua (Von der Weid, p3) the farmers' union plays a decisive role in the participatory planning process.
- Farmers' organisations in India (Ramprasad p21) and the Philippines (Montemayor, p22) and NGOs in Thailand play an important role in advocacy of sustainable agriculture and putting governments under pressure to accept policies favourable for small farmers.
- In Northern Thailand (Levin and Panyakul, p11 ), culture, religion and indigenous knowledge seem to play an important role in motivating and guiding farmers in agricultural development and in monitoring sustainability. However, indigenous knowledge began disappearing when export oriented chemical farming was introduced into the village economy. Self-reliance and integrated agriculture as promoted by the NGOs in Northern Thailand (Ondam and Boonmathya, p12) could be an effective answer to the increasing dependence on market and agribusiness and to stop the drain of resources (organic matter, nutrients, money, labour, power, culture) from rural to urban areas.
- Farmers' experimentation and participatory technology development (PTD) play an important role in Machakos, Taua, Thailand and Cuba.
- Purposeful government policies and focused research to reorient export oriented high-external-input agriculture to self-reliant low-external-input and organic agriculture seems to be the motor of development towards sustainability in Cuba (Rosset, p28).
Other suggestions come from Leonardo Montemayor and Sara Scherr: "To enhance sustainability at local level it is important to educate farmers and to provide incentives by transferring landownership to the tiller and protecting workers' interest and share in the fruits of sustainability. At national level, farmers should be assisted by research and technology development, but relying also on farmers themselves in these matters. Bio-organic inputs should be used in all government projects and farmers should be given tax exemptions and protection against unfair competition in the production and marketing of bio-organic inputs. Further, the agrarian reform programme should be implemented expeditious.
At the international level, scientific and technological exchange should be stimulated, export of inorganic inputs should be regulated and manufacturers of inorganic inputs should restrain from exerting undue pressure or propaganda. What we judge to be essential for working towards greater sustainability in agriculture is greater responsiveness on the part of government to the needs of small farmers and government's as well as farmers' maintenance and enrichment of the environment and natural resources."
Leonardo Q. Montemayor, Federation of Free Farmers, 41 Highland drive, Blue Ridge, 11009 Quezon City, Philippines.
"We need more focus on investments to improve the land base itself (perennial erosion barriers, windbreaks, soil tilt improvement, etc.) and on how to reduce costs and improve effectiveness of these investments. Farmers will usually make such investments only if they perceive returns to be more attractive than putting the same labour effort, cash investment, and/or management effort into off-farm wage labour or non-agricultural economic activities. We need a much better, empirically-based understanding of technical, environmental and policy factors which influence these decisions. Much more effort should probably be directed towards the development of human and animal food sources from trees, shrubs and palms, which could substitute for annual grains, pulses etc. in lands which are unsuitable for intensive cultivation. This would require not only efforts at selecting improved germplasm and higher productivity of agronomic techniques, but also lower-cost and bulk processing technology and market development. The greatest disadvantage I see from the LEISA approach is the difficulty of resource mobilisation. Currently, national and international resources for agricultural technology development are stagnating. Thus efforts to increase technology development for fragile lands are perceived as reducing resources available for such work in the traditional "breadbasket" areas. Yet the latter are critical sources of future food supplies for urban areas and high-density rural areas, and a strong response to the environmental problems caused by intensification."
Sara Scherr, International Food Policy Research Institute, 1200 17th Street NW, Washington, DC 20036, USA.
Considerable investments neededFrom the above it can be concluded that to enhance sustainability, considerable investments are needed to improve farming systems, to create favourable conditions for sustainable agriculture as well as to reorient and improve support to farmers by development workers, researchers, policy makers, educators, information managers, funders, etc. At farmer level investments are not only needed to improve technology but also to increase awareness and knowledge of sustainability issues and strengthen local organisation, leadership, communication, marketing, storing, processing, recycling, etc. To make investments at farmers level feasible, favourable conditions have to be created such as
- secure land tenure rights, for men and women
- availability of a wide choice of site-specific techniques, inputs, seeds and breeding material
- access to market, credit and information, for men and women
- favourable prices for products and inputs
- government policies which empower local communities to manage the local natural resource base in a sustainable way
- appropriate education and training, among others focussed on site-specific sustainable land use
- a positive attitude towards farming and rural live
"Technologies, while bearing success in some cases, can only lead to sustained change if they are carried by strong community-level groups, as described in the examples from Kenya, Thailand and Brazil. These, in turn, often require support from external agencies, to link them to ideas and experiences of other organisations. A recognition of these synergistic linkages has led, for example, to the proliferation of networks we know today. Those who focus on NGOs as the main vehicles of a sustainable agriculture often forget two main actors: government agencies and educational institutions. Government agencies represent the bulk of human resources, arguable financial resources and political clout. Their involvement in helping to develop a sustainable agriculture would release great potential.
There are an increasing number of rich experiences in linking government with NGOs from which much can be learned, and it is perhaps here that international development agencies have much to contribute. Secondly, it is in the halls of learning, national educational institutions, where minds are shaped, ideas created and patterns set for the years to follow. There are few instances where curricula have created space for the theories, conditions and praxis of sustainable agriculture. International development agencies also represent a powerful lobby. Their potential perhaps lies best in helping to create a favourable policy climate. Policies, such as subsidies and tax regulations, could be reviewed and revised to be more supportive of small farmers working with LEISA. Another area where creative energies are needed to break the stagnation are in relations with agroindustry, who represent a large force, accountable to no government or community, which control many agricultural processes."
Irene Guijt, International Institute for Environment and Development, Sustainable Agriculture Programme, 3 Endsleigh Street, London WC1H ODD, UK.
Effective support organisationsTo give support to farmers to develop sustainable farming systems and to create favourable conditions for sustainable agriculture effective governmental and nongovernmental support organisations are needed which complement and strengthen each other. Although the need for sustainability is as old as agriculture itself, support organisations do not have much experience with enhancing sustainability. Within the context of this Newsletter it is impossible to analyse the performance of different actors. Nevertheless some interesting conclusions are made by several authors:
- Insufficient insight in the complexities of development of sustainable agriculture and unrealistic expectations of the potential for sustainable land use and the effectiveness of low-external-input techniques are important constraints for its implementation (Levin and Panyakul; Kessler and Moolhuijzen; Chandy et al).
- Especially in ecologically, economically and politically unfavourable conditions application of LEISA techniques can be difficult or can even lead to further degradation. A system and regional approach should be applied when evaluating the potential of techniques to contribute to sustainability (Kessler and Moolhuijzen).
- More efforts are needed to consolidate village organisations. Especially the effective participation of women in village organisations, and as a prerequisite for this, the development of strong women's groups deserves attention (Chandy et al).
- Technological research and development for sustainable agriculture receives little support from research institutions in Thailand. Indigenous knowledge remains unrecognised and unrecorded (Levin and Panyakul).
- In Brazil, an evaluation of a training programme indicated that it is better to offer a limited number of practices per agricultural season and to set up a programme of training, experimenting and adopting, which runs for several years (Von der Weid).
- Due to the need for short-term results, Participatory Technology Development (PTD) can be difficult. Lack of capable staff makes that NGOs often have to work in a top-down way (Kessler and Moolhuijzen).
- Lack of technical information and examples of successful application of LEISA techniques is seen as an important constraint (Levin and Panyakul; Kessler and Moolhuijzen).
- There is a need for strengthening cooperation and coordination between different actors (Chandy et al).
- Another major constraint is the difficulty to secure long term funding commitments from both government and external donors (Chandy et al).
Staff from the International Institute for Rural Reconstruction adds the following comments: "We need to improve our efforts to assess and document the economic dimensions of LEISA technological options. As environmental economic theory and natural resource accounting practices are maturing, we must ensure that these analytical tools begin to playa more significant role in our efforts to accurately weigh the costs and benefits (both short- and long-term) of high-external-input agriculture (HEIA) as compared to LEISA. We need to develop new modalities or collaboration between NGOs and the traditional research and extension system (i.e. government, universities, IARCs, etc.), which has tended to neglect some of the LEISA alternatives being pursued by NGOs.
This should become a priority for the simple reason that these formal institutions hold some of the greatest potential for ensuring a more significant and widespread impact of the LEISA efforts. How can we "scale-up" successful LEISA efforts to demonstrate the impact of LEISA alternatives? There is a need for more professional training of agricultural technicians on processes or methods related to allowing farmers more opportunities to develop and disseminate new alternative agriculture production technologies and strategies. These training efforts should include participatory technology development (PTD) strategies, participatory rural appraisal (PRA) methods, "re-definition" of the conventional roles of "farmer", "researcher" and "extensionist" within a technology development and dissemination framework. What's really needed to ensure that real changes take place in the area of agricultural development is more grassroots-level and community-based work. This breed of dedicated frontline workers are either diminishing or are being neglected and consequently unheard of. Instead advocates, lobbyists, networkers and trainers seem to take the centre-stage role. Little can happen if there is not enough sustained and long-term commitment to community-level action. What should we be doing to achieve a balance in favour of the latter?"
Scott Killough and Julian Gonsalves, IIRR, Silang, Cavite 4118, Philippines.
PovertyNGOs in Thailand (Levin and Panyakul) concluded that "the double cost-price squeeze serves as the main mechanism to transfer surplus products from the rural agricultural sector to the urban industrial sector". Likewise, there is a drain of resources from less industrialised to industrialised countries. This drain of resources is an important reason why many farmers have fallen below the poverty line. "As long as these immediate economic constraints remain untackled, a large number of resource poor farmers will be barred from adopting sustainable agriculture" (Levin and Panyakul). For these farmers efforts to improve and sustain farming have to be combined with poverty alleviation (Chandy et al; Kessler and Moolhuijzen), and on-farm and off-farm activities have to be merged in secure livelihood strategies. But will this approach be successful in the long run if nothing will be done to stop the drain of resources? Therefore, it is also very important to base agriculture on socially and environmentally responsible prices, to put pressure on Western countries to stop dumping excess production (e.g. meat, grain, milk powder) on the international market and to change the proposed GA TT agreements (Ramprasad). Here, international organisations have important responsibility. In our era of "globalisation", where links are made where none were before, it is clear too that local, national and international levels cannot operate in isolation. A multitude of new partnerships will be needed which enable constructive dialogues to move between levels. It is this globalisation of sustainable agriculture which presents challenges for the function of the many actors involved in agriculture."
Irene Guijt, IIED, sustainable agriculture programme.
ILEIA's conclusionThe conclusion of the ILEIA team is that in the past years efforts to improve agriculture by better use of local resources and the awareness of the importance of sustainability, local knowledge and farmers' participation has increased considerably. LEISA and PTD are now serious options for many international, national and local research and development agencies. At the same time, we realise that the real economical and political shift to sustainable development at international and national level still has to be made. Without such a shift systematic development of sustainable agriculture will be very difficult. Therefore, much remains to be done.
We are presently engaged in formulating the next phase of the ILEIA project and hope to get funding to continue the publication of the ILEIA Newsletter and to cooperate with initiatives for development of sustainable agriculture in three regions. This cooperation can embrace collection and documentation of relevant local knowledge and experiences, linking with formal research, and fostering participatory technology development. Diversifying the approach to development of sustainable agriculture per ecozone, economic situation and cultural background and quantifying the effects of different approaches are amongst the points ILEIA should give urgent attention.
At the same time, we hope that the number of farmers, organisations and institutions involved in development of sustainable agriculture will grow fast and that the members of the ILEIA network will continue to share with us their new insights, initiatives, concerns and experiences.