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Is there a sustainable agricultural option?

Date
Time (GMT +01) 11:00 12:30

Speakers:
Jules Pretty
, University of Essex
Barbara Dinham, Pesticides Action

Chair:
Simon Maxwell - ODI

1.Simon Maxwell introduced the discussion. Most of the rural development strategies discussed in previous sessions mentioned environmental sustainability as an objective, but few explored in detail what this might mean for agricultural production. This session was designed to fill the gap. In discussing the topic, the question would not just be whether sustainable options ‘worked’, in a narrow, technical sense, but also whether they were cost-effective and replicable.

2.Jules Pretty took up this challenge. His presentation used a livelihood framework to explore the impact on poverty reduction and sustainability of three main agricultural options, (a) expanding the area under cultivation, (b) increasing per hectare production in exporting countries, mostly industrialised, and (c) increasing farm productivity in developing countries, either using purchased inputs, or by relying on locally available resources. These alternatives should be judged not just by their impact on income, but also by their impact on social capital and the environment. A basic premise was that modern, industrialised agriculture had severe negative externalities or feedback effects which reduce the assets on which agriculture and rural people depend.

3. A review of 208 projects in 52 countries showed that better options were available, with virtuous linkages. The projects varied from the large-scale (zero tillage systems in Latin America) to the relatively small-scale (adoption of new maize-bean inter-cropping systems in Central America, soil and water conservation techniques in Africa and Sri Lanka). The benefits included greater production and better soil quality, but also better distribution of resources within households, and stronger social organisations. There were no doubt ‘confounding factors’, like the tendency of the rich to want to take over assets like land if quality improved and the returns increased. In addition, there were real problems in creating a supportive policy climate for sustainability. In general, however, it did seem that (a) both technologies and social processes for sustainable agriculture were available, and (b) the social and institutional conditions for scaling-up were beginning to be put in place.

4.Barbara Dinham focused on the negative effects of heavy chemical use: her presentation and slideshow, provides data on health, water quality, environment, biodiversity, pest resistance, economic cost, and food residues. These costs were classic externalities, not counted in crop budgets, but often borne by poor producers and their families. There were options available, however, that would reduce herbicide, insecticide and other chemical use. Dinham described an approach known as ‘Farmer Field Schools’, which provided training to farmers in low chemical input techniques. Examples cited included organic cotton production in Benin, and food crop production in low potential areas of Ethiopia. Training on its own was not enough, however. Further interventions were needed in the relevant commodity supply chains, to make sure that the heavy environmental costs of high chemical use were properly accounted and internalised, and to ensure that the benefits of improved technology were shared with farmers.

5. Three key issues were taken up in the discussion:

  1. First, there was a certain discomfort among some participants with the criteria for defining agricultural systems as ‘sustainable’. Jules Pretty had identified a variety of changes to the farming system (e.g. intensification of a single component of the farming system, addition of new productive elements) but his cases appeared mostly to rely on external intervention and new forms of social organisation. Were these necessary conditions? In some parts of Africa, for example, Machakos in Kenya was cited, changes to the underlying demographics and to economic opportunities had led to better land husbandry and better soil and water conservation, without there necessarily being a need for outside intervention. Pretty had indicated that their research had found 3% of the agricultural area of developing countries under arable and permanent crops for sustainable agriculture (most of this under large-scale zero-tillage in Latin America). This might be an under-estimate, if self-generated innovations were included. By the same token, it might be more important to set the right policy framework than to worry about project-level interventions.
  2. Second, there were a number of questions about the costs and benefits to farmers of the various innovations proposed. For example, many ‘sustainable’ techniques, including integrated pest management, were much more labour intensive than input-intensive techniques: despite savings on inputs, they might not be cost-effective in farming systems where labour was scarce, overall or seasonally. Equally, though, some methods have led to reductions in labour requirements. Doubtless this was not always the case, but the lack of farm management accounting data and of economic analysis was striking. If sustainable solutions were so attractive, why were they not being taken up by farmers on a much larger scale?
  3. Part of the reason might be to do with externalities. Care was needed in discussing the real costs and benefits, because so many of the costs of modern, high-input agriculture were hidden. It was not enough simply to focus on issues like an organic premium for crops grown without chemical inputs, since the main benefits of switching were not captured by the market. The commodity chains involved many commercial interests. Much more analysis was needed on this point
6. In conclusion, it was agreed that the issues raised needed to be central to a discussion of agricultural futures. Better costing of externalities, more detailed farming systems analysis, more analysis of the policy frameworks for spontaneous innovation, and better understanding of industrial interests would all be necessary.

Description

Most of the rural development strategies discussed in previous sessions of this series mentioned environmental sustainability as an objective, but few explored in detail what this might mean for agricultural production. This session was designed to fill the gap. In discussing the topic, the question would not just be whether sustainable options ‘worked’, in a narrow, technical sense, but also whether they were cost-effective and replicable.