Sustainability in Perspective:
Strengths and Limitations of FSRE
in Contributing to a Sustainable Agriculture
CIMMYT Asian Regional Economics Program,
P.O. Box.9-188, Bangkok 10900, Thailand
Sustainability in Perspective:
Strengths and Limitations of FSRE
in Contributing to a Sustainable Agriculturel
1. Prepared for the 12th Annual Farming Systems Symposium, Michigan State
University, 13-18 September, 1992.
2. CIMMYT Asian Regional Economics Program. Opinions expressed are not
necessarily those of CIMMYT.
The author gratefully acknowledges helpful comments from Dan Buckles,
Hari Gurung, Sam Fujisaka, Peter Hildebrand, Rob Tripp and Derek Byerlee on an
earlier draft of this paper. Any remaining errors are, unfortunately, the responsibility
of the author. This paper was partially based on research conducted at Cornell
University in 1989-90, with the support of CIMMYT. Opinions expressed, however,
are not necessarily those of Cornell University or CIMMYT.
Issues of sustainability are commanding more attention from agricultural
scientists. Yet few themes can match sustainability for the broad range of questions
that it touches and, as a consequence, the sense of perplexity that it all too often
engenders. The notion of sustainability encompasses population growth and pollu-
tion, deforestation and land degradation, agroecology and energy cycling, erosion and
intergenerational equity, not to mention biodiversity, global warming and the ultimate
fate of mankind. It is a formidable topic.
This paper introduces some of the issues related to sustainable agricultural
development. It then initiates a discussion on alternative ways that FSRE can help
address these issues. It contends that FSRE can indeed help through "direct contribu-
tions", defined as farm- or community-level interventions that aim to directly reverse
processes of resource degradation, or foster increased agroecosystem diversity.
However, it argues (given the low levels of adoption typical of techniques developed
through FSRE) that benefits from these "direct contributions" are likely to be limited.
The paper proceeds to introduce the concept of "preventive" contributions to sustain-
able agriculture. "Preventive" contributions are those that address fundamental
causes of unsustainability, e.g., poverty and population pressure on resources, or that
avert resource degradation in fragile areas by increasing productivity, income and
employment in favored areas. It is suggested that FSRE may not be well suited to
make "preventive" contributions. Reasons given include an "anti-growth" rhetoric
found in some of the FSRE literature, the limitations of a microlevel focus when
addressing problems that are regional or even global in nature, and (once again) a
perceived lack of impact at the farm level.
Interpretations of Sustainability
"Sustainability" and sustainable agriculture have been conceptualized and
defined in numerous ways. One recent definition that seems useful was proposed by
Crosson (1992): "A sustainable agricultural system is one that can indefinitely meet
demands for food and fiber at socially acceptable economic and environmental costs".
Many other definitions may be found in the literature (e.g., see Barbier and
McCracken 1988). Most of these, however, appear to fall into one or more of three
distinct categories: agroecology, ethics, and sustainable growth.1
Agroecology. Some definitions focus on sustainability in terms of system resilience or
the ability of an agricultural system to "maintain its productivity when subject to stress
or perturbation" (Conway 1986). Sustainability in the agroecological sense is en-
hanced through system diversity. A diversity of enterprises over time and space fos-
ters recycling of nutrients, an increased efficiency in the use of moisture, nutrients and
sunlight; and a reduction in the incidence of pests, weeds and diseases (Altieri 1987).
The ecological wisdom and efficiency embodied in indigenous technical knowledge,
and the dangers inherent in the loss of this knowledge, is a recurring theme (e.g.,
Crews and Gliessman 1991).
Ethics. Other definitions focus on sustainability in terms of equity, including inter-
generational equity and the rights of non-human species (Batie 1989). The emphasis
1. A fourth interpretation, focusing on the sustainability of rural institutions and communities, is
sometimes advanced. It should be noted that the three interpretations of sustainable agriculture are
presented here in a somewhat stylized form. Moreover, there is considerable overlap between them.
Nonetheless, I find that distinguishing among these interpretations helps avoid confusion when ad-
dressing sustainability issues.
is on stewardship; or the proper care and protection of resources (Barker and
Chapman 1988). This conceptualization is founded on the belief that future genera-
tions have the right to an environment and a resource base no worse than that en-
joyed by the current generation. Proponents of this interpretation are less likely to
condone the environmental costs of meeting growing demand for agricultural
Sustainable Growth. A third major view of sustainability focuses on the need for
continued growth in agricultural productivity, while maintaining the quality of re-
sources devoted to agriculture (CGIAR 1990). It implies that renewable resources
should not be used more rapidly than they can be continuously generated, and that
nonrenewable resources should be used with optimal efficiency (Barbier and
McCracken 1988). Proponents of this interpretation, while concerned about resource
quality, are less likely to tolerate threats to food security. Food security, however, is
seen as global in nature and as something can be fostered by widespread and equita-
ble economic progress, and the growth of trade (Crosson 1992, Graham-Tomasi
Despite obvious differences, the three interpretations have much in common.
All are concerned with equity, with the quality of resources devoted to agricultural
production, and with meeting future demands for agricultural products1. Differences,
though not trivial, lie mostly in emphasis.
1. The importance of system resilience in the agroecology approach is compatible with a concern with
food security. Few things are less secure than a food system susceptible to collapse. In the ethics
interpretation, a major threat to future food security.is current ongoing resource degradation. In the
sustainable growth interpretation, concern for meeting changing demand for food and fiber is para-
Categories of Sustainability Issues
An immense number of issues are regularly raised in relation to the sustain-
ability of agriculture. For simplicity, researchers should aim to group sustainability
issues into classes or categories. The following categories were recently suggested
Internal vs External. External issues of sustainability are those associated with
changes in farmers' external circumstances. Global warming and future climate
change, future availability and prices of fertilizers and other purchased inputs, and
changes in global biodiversity are examples. These issues are largely beyond the
farmers' direct control. In contrast, internal issues are directly associated with farm-
ing system operations and farmers' decision making, e.g., soil erosion, nutrient deple-
tion, buildup of pests and diseases, salinization, environmental pollution from agricul-
tural chemicals, etc.1
Reversible vs Irreversible. Sustainability problems may be divided into those that are
reversible (e.g., loss of soil nutrients and organic matter, buildup of pests and dis-
eases) and those that are (for all practical purposes) irreversible (e.g., species extinc-
tion, massive soil erosion). The permanent effects of irreversible problems cause
special concern. When future demands for a resource are uncertain and the effects of
irreversible change are not well known, the present generation may perceive a value
("option demand") in maintaining an option for future uses of that resource (Johnston
1. Not all issues can be unquestionably classified as either internal or external -- there is considerable
grey area. Farm operations undoubtedly do contribute (in a relatively subordinate way) to global
warming. Moreover, most internal issues are conditioned to a certain extent by farmers' external
circumstances. Nonetheless, the distinction helps by highlighting the relative importance of farm-level
decisions in addressing sustainability problems.
1988). Irreversibility has been most studied in relation to species extinction (Bishop
1978, Krutilla and Fisher 1975).
Public Health vs Agricultural Productivity. A few of the issues often included under
the rubric of sustainable agriculture have little to do with sustaining agricultural
productivity as such. Rather, they deal with the effects of agricultural practices (e.g.,
pesticide use) on pubic health. These are important questions and adjustments in
agricultural practices can be effective in addressing them. However, it is useful to
distinguish them from other problems that threaten future agricultural productivity
and food security.
Causes of Unsustainabilit
Researchers aiming to help farmers overcome a particular problem should
have a good understanding of the causes of that problem. This is a principle of FSRE
(Tripp and Woolley 1988). Unfortunately, causes of sustainability problems can be
exceedingly complex. "Internal" sustainability problems can typically can be traced to
an interaction between the characteristics of a resource base, and the pattern and
methods of utilization of those resources (Jodha 1989). Patterns of utilization that
degrade resources have been linked to population pressure on resources (PPR)1,
poverty and marginalization, insecure property rights, and certain kinds of public
policy.2 Population growth and public policies are also major factors in "external"
1. But see the discussion on poverty and marginalization, below.
2. Factors often directly associated with internal problems of water and land degradation -- high
discount rates, abuse of common property resources, deforestation attributable to commercial logging,
low adoption of land conserving practices -- can usually be traced to one or more of the four funda-
mental causes listed.
sustainability problems. A summary of causes of unsustainability, drawn from the
discussion presented below, is shown in Fig. 1.
Population Growth. Population growth and PPR are routinely seen as major causes
of many classes of sustainability problems. Increased population causes increased
demand for food and fiber, which must be met through expanded cropped area or
higher yields. Larger populations also require expanded employment, much of which
in developing countries must be found in agriculture, or agriculture-related industries.
Moreover, world population is increasing more rapidly than expected, and is likely to
level off at over 11 billion people by the end of the next century, instead of the 10.2
billion people estimated earlier (United Nations Population Fund 1990). Conse-
quently, controlling population growth is widely perceived as a key element in foster-
ing sustainable agriculture (Mellor 1988, Heilbroner 1980, Blake 1990).
Poverty and Marginalization. Although population growth is undoubtedly a major
factor in "external" problems (global warming, depletion of nonrenewable resources,
loss of biodiversity), it is not clear that PPR on its own must necessarily lead to land
degradation. There are instances where land-conserving technology is only feasible
when labor becomes abundant, e.g., Asian wet rice culture. Blaikie and Brookfield
(1987) cite examples where severe land degradation has taken place in the total
absence of PPR, indeed, when population was falling. They suggest that PPR be-
comes an important cause of unsustainability when it is part of a particular dynamic
sequence, whereby fragile lands are occupied and cultivated by marginalized farmers
with few resources. A downward spiral of poverty, resource degradation and margin-
alization proceeds, each problem exacerbated by the others.
A study conducted in Nepal, for example, identified interactions among health,
income, agricultural productivity and land quality, with reductions in one leading to
Fig. 1. Poverty, income growth
and problems of sustainability
reductions in the others. As farmers became poorer, they were observed by be less
willing to invest in land-saving technologies and more likely to abuse common proper-
ty resources for near-term gain. As land productivity declined, poverty became more
widespread (IFPRI 1989).
Poverty is affected by opportunities for employment as well as distribution and
quality of land resources and other assets (Poleman 1989). Policies that redistribute
assets (e.g., land reform) or foster employment-creating economic growth can thus
reduce poverty and help relieve pressure on the agricultural resource base (Lipton
1989). A major role for agricultural research in addressing sustainability questions
may be to contribute to widespread economic growth and generation of alternative
forms of employment.
Finally, poverty and marginalization themselves contribute to continued
population growth. Increased incomes, together with education for women and the
availability of information on family planning, have been shown to be effective in
reducing population growth rates (Poleman 1989, United Nations Population Fund
1990). Issues of economic growth, income distribution, employment, poverty and
population growth -- these are all interrelated, and as a group strongly affect the
sustainability of agriculture.
Property Rights, Common Property Resources and Externalities. Common property
resources (CPR), including forests and pastures, are extremely important in many
developing countries, especially for the very poor. There is little doubt, however, that
CPR are under threat from neglect, overexploitation, underinvestment and even
expropriation (Jodha 1991). Much of this can be attributed to uncertain property
rights. That is, there often is a lack of clear rules, clearly enforced, regarding rights
and responsibilities of individuals and groups when using common property. While
privatization of CPR is often suggested, this has been known to place these resources
in the hands of the relatively wealthy (Anderson and Thampapillai 1990). Actions
(policies, institutional changes) to foster user groups and community management of
CPR are often preferable (Lurie 1991). These actions, in effect, clarify property
rights in an equitable fashion. Externalities, especially the ability of certain farmers to
impose off-site costs on others, have also been blamed for sustainability problems.
For example, the off-site costs of soil erosion in the US are thought to be twice as high
as on-site costs. In Asia, a common externality is the siltation of irrigation infrastruc-
ture from erosion in the sloping uplands (UACP 1987).
Public Policy. Policies can contribute to unsustainability in two ways: directly, and
indirectly through their effects on population growth, poverty, common property
resources and externalities. Here are some examples of direct policy effects:
Deforestation and subsequent soil erosion have been linked with policies that
directly favor commercial logging (low tax rates or overt subsidies, public road con-
struction in forested areas, poor enforcement of forestry regulations) (Repetto and
Gillis, 1988). Policies that directly restrain farmer adoption of erosion-controlling
practices include subsidies on external inputs, interventions that increase interest
rates, and policies that reduce the security of land tenure (Anderson and Thampapil-
lai, 1990). Subsidies on external inputs, together with modes of market development
that foster monoculture, can also lead to reduced system diversity. The list could be
made much longer: policies directly affect depletion of groundwater (water pricing,
water diversions); soil organic matter management (fertilizer subsidies, taxes on live-
stock or dairy enterprises); pest and disease buildup (product pricing that favors
continuous grain cultivation, pesticide pricing, lack of extension interventions for
integrated pest management); and so on.
As powerful as these direct policy effects may be, policies that indirectly affect
the sustainability of agriculture may ultimately prove to be more influential. Given
the fundamental causes of unsustainability described above, any and all policies that
affect economic growth, income distribution, employment generation, population
growth, and poverty alleviation can be said to indirectly affect the sustainability of
agriculture. As might be expected, there are too many of these to list.
Potential Contributions of FSRE in Fostering Sustainable Agriculture
FSRE can help foster the development of a sustainable agriculture in a
number of ways. Four well-defined alternatives ("direct", "adaptive", "policy-
oriented", and "preventive" contributions to sustainable agriculture) are discussed
below. Among these alternatives, there are areas in which FSRE has particular
strengths. In other areas, however, the contributions of FSRE are likely to be, at best,
Direct Contributions. FSRE can help farmers halt processes of resource degradation
through farm- or community-level interventions. Direct contributions include work
on (and this is an incomplete listing): alleycropping, agroforestry, reduced tillage
systems, legume intercropping, the use of cover crops or green manures, crop-live-
stock integration (and other interventions to increase system complexity), water
management practices to reduce problems of salinity and sodicity, community forest
management and/ or reforestation, etc. Numerous observers have remarked that
FSRE provides a natural basis for generating technologies that safeguard resource
quality and foster system resilience (Francis and Hildebrand 1989, Hart and Sands
1990, etc.). They undoubtedly had in mind these "direct contributions" of FSRE.
Adaptive Contributions. FSRE can help enhance productivity in areas where re-
source degradation has already taken place, i.e., to "adapt" to a degraded environ-
ment. The focus here is on improving productivity under difficult conditions, with
only a secondary emphasis on maintaining resource quality. Adaptive strategies may
be helpful with regard to both "internal" and "external" sustainability problems.
Farmers themselves, of course, adapt to resource degradation through farming sys-
tems adjustments, e.g., replacement of deep-rooted planted by shallow-rooted plants,
replacement of cattle by small ruminants, replacement of maize, wheat or rice by
sorghum, millet or cassava, etc. (Jodha 1989). FSRE can help farmers find additional
options for adaptation. For example, the introduction of drought-tolerant germplasm
can help farmers adapt to conditions of reduced soil moisture-holding capacity due to
erosion, or changes in rainfall patterns. Adaptive and direct contributions can be
used together when processes of land degradation persist.
Policy-Oriented Contributions. The influence of policies in determining the sustain-
ability of agriculture was discussed above. Some of these policies influence sustain-
ability indirectly, through effects on poverty, employment and population growth.
Other policies more directly foster deforestation, soil erosion, external input use and
reduced system diversity.
FSRE, of course, is unlikely to effect national macroeconomic policy. None-
theless, FSRE practitioners can and should call attention to lower-level policies that
can be specifically linked to resource degradation. For example, LISA proponents in
the USA called attention to base acreage policies that were fostering monocropping
and soil erosion (Faeth et al 1991), with the consequence that these policies were
modified. Knowledge of farmers' circumstances obtained through FSRE techniques
can help in the design of institutional innovations for common property resource
management. At the very least, FSRE practitioners should aim to utilize their inti-
mate knowledge of farming systems to make explicit some of the costs associated with
resource degradation and pollution when comparing alternative technologies and
options for farmers (World Resources Institute, 1989).
Preventive Contributions. FSRE -- and other forms of agricultural research -- can
indirectly avert or forestall resource degradation through activities that have other
primary objectives, e.g., employment generation or widespread economic growth. As
noted in earlier sections, land degradation has been found to be associated with
population growth, poverty, and lack of employment opportunities. Poverty is also a
major cause of continued population growth, which in turn is a factor in "external"
problems of unsustainability (Fig. 1). Development strategies that are efficient in
reducing poverty and generating employment (whether directly, or indirectly through
linkages with other sectors of the economy) can help forestall problems of land
degradation. Effective FSRE, with favorable impacts that cover large areas and
benefit large numbers of farm families, could play a leading role in such strategies.
There is a tendency to dismiss "preventive" contributions of agricultural re-
search as esoteric and unimportant. It is instructive, then, to note the "preventive"
contributions of Green Revolution technologies:
"Without modern varieties, production of rice and maize in the 90 countries with humid tropi-
cal lands may have been 20-30 million tons less than it is. To have made up this shortfall from
nonirrigated lands with traditional varieties and management practices would have required an
additional area under cultivation of the order of 20-40 million ha [probably an underestimate,
considering the rapid degradation of newly cleared land].
"There can be little doubt that, in the absence of the increment attributable to modern varieties
and improved management practices there would have been substantially more pressure on the
land frontier, In addition, since reduction in supply of these staples would have increased
prices, it may be assumed that marginal areas on the forest frontier would have become viable
prospects for short-run development with negative long-run effects on sustainability of the
resource base." (CGIAR 1985, chapter 14).
Green Revolution technologies are not typically celebrated as being environ-
mentally-friendly. There is no doubt that some problems have arisen in the areas
where they were introduced. Public health has been threatened by excessive pesticide
use (McCracken and Conway 1987), system diversity and system resilience may have
declined1, land degradation has certainly occurred (e.g., salinization of irrigated areas
of India and Pakistan), and reliance on external inputs has increased.
It is ironic, then, that Green Revolution technologies, for all of their faults,
have featured such powerful "preventive" contributions to sustainable agriculture. In
addition, their introduction has typically fostered widespread economic development
and increased employment (Sarma and Gandhi 1990, Shalla et al, 1990), with neutral-
to-favorable effects on income distribution2. These technologies have indirectly
(though perhaps unintentionally) addressed some of the fundamental longer-term
causes of unsustainability.
The challenge to FSRE is to match the "preventive" contributions of the Green
Revolution technologies. FSRE should aim to increase incomes and employment as
well as to foster system diversity and reduce the use of external inputs. This challenge
can only be met, however, if the effectiveness and impact of FSRE are dramatically
1. It should be noted, however, that reduced diversity has been partially compensated by the pest and
disease resistance, and tolerance to abiotic stresses, characteristic of many of the more recently re-
leased improved varieties of wheat, rice and maize. In addition, pest and disease resistant varieties are
important components of integrated pest management.
2. Some FSRE practitioners may be surprised that Green Revolution technologies have been found to
have had favorable effects on income distribution. In Pakistan, benefits mainly accrued to low-income
urban consumers and small, food-deficit farmers, who profited from lower food prices. Relative losses
were incurred by larger, food-surplus farmers in non-Green Revolution areas (Renkow 1989). There
is evidence that points to a similar pattern of income effects in Bangladesh, although the situation
appears more complex (Alauddin and Tisdell 1991).
Limitations of FSRE
The potential for FSRE to contribute to the development of a sustainable
agriculture appears limited in three ways. First, FSRE seems unlikely to be in the
forefront of the solution of "external" problems. In addition, FSRE is likely to prove
poorly suited to make "preventive" contributions, because of an "anti-growth" rhetoric
found in the parts of the FSRE literature, and because of inherent limitations of using
a microlevel focus when addressing problems that are regional or even global in
nature. Finally, even "direct" contributions of FSRE to the solution of "internal"
problems -- FSRE's strong point -- may produce only meager benefits unless FSRE
practitioners can improve their record on adoption, impact and effectiveness.
External Problems. FSRE seems unlikely to make major contributions to the solution
of major "external" problems -- global warming, depletion of nonrenewable resources
used as agricultural inputs, and global loss of biodiversity. This does not imply that
FSRE cannot make any contribution. The role of rice cultivation and livestock
management in the production of methane, a greenhouse gas, is well known (Pretty
and Conway 1989), and suitable interventions may be able to reduce methane emis-
sions. The prospect of scarcities (and higher prices) for fossil fuels and fertilizers used
in agriculture is a major force behind the interest in reduced tillage and external input
systems, and seems largely responsible for the widespread interest in energy account-
ing to evaluate alternative technologies (e.g., Crews, Mohler and Power, 1992).
Realistically, however, these issues are largely in the hands of national and
international policy makers who can (if they choose) agree through international
treaties (or internal policies of taxation and subsidies) to control carbon dioxide and
CFC emissions, protect tropical forests and foster the conservation and recycling of
nonrenewable resources. The most important role of FSRE is in helping farmers
prepare alternative adaptations to cope with the eventual onset of these "external"
problems -- not in attempting to single-handedly solve them.
Growth, Trade and FSRE. Within the literature on sustainable agricultural develop-
ment1, there is a strong current that views agricultural development based on special-
ization, commercialization and dependence on markets as thoroughly undesirable.
Concern is understandably voiced about the possible loss of ecologically efficient
indigenous technical knowledge as agriculture becomes commercialized (e.g., Crews
and Gliessman 1991). Some observers eloquently disagree with the very notion of
using external inputs in agriculture (Rodale 1989) while others, with less support, go
so far as to claim that impoverishment stems from links with markets (Altieri 1987,
Mansour 1980) and that what is needed is local autonomy and self-reliance. The very
need for increased production is sometimes questioned, given that poverty could con-
ceivably be erased entirely through redistribution (Durning 1990).
More often, however, it is recognized that agriculture will have to provide live-
lihoods for much larger populations in the future, and that a decrease in poverty is
needed to safeguard the resource base and help reduce population growth rates.
There will be a continued need for "preventive" contributions of agricultural research
-- new technology to increase the productivity of lands currently under production in
order to make unnecessary the clearing of new lands for agriculture. The question
remains, however, whether these ends can be most efficiently achieved through the
development of ecologically complex farming systems that feature intensive exploita-
1. Particularly among proponents of the "agroecology" and "ethics" interpretations of sustainable
tion of microenvironments (Chambers 1991) -- if at the same time suitable forms of
specialization and trade are discouraged.
Space considerations do not allow a full discussion of the potential roles of
diversification, specialization and trade in fostering agricultural development, poverty
alleviation and employment generation.1 FSRE practitioners might wish to reflect,
however, on whether "anti-growth" and "anti-trade" rhetoric and programs may, at the
margin, hinder employment generation and poverty alleviation through new agricul-
tural technology. Economic efficiency, specialization and trade may prove to be
entirely compatible with reduced external input use and application of indigenous
technical knowledge, if an effort is made to find areas of congruence.
Scope and Pace of Impact. The extent to which FSRE ends up assisting in the devel-
opment of a sustainable agriculture -- whether through "direct", "adaptive", "policy-
oriented" or "preventive" contributions -- depends entirely on the speed, extent and
incidence of farmer adoption of new technology developed through FSRE. This is
If one looks hard enough, it is possible to find a number of FSRE "success
stories", where continuous progress may be traced from diagnosis, through planning
and experimentation to final farmer adoption (Tripp ed. 1991). These successes are
all too rare, however. A conventional wisdom is emerging to the effect that FSRE has
not (and probably never will) repay the considerable investment made in its name
1. Useful references include Lipton 1989, Mellor 1988, Panayotou and Phantumvanit 1991, Poleman
1989, Popkin 1979, Ruttan 1990, Schuh 1989, etc.
(Tripp et al, 1990).1 Indeed, the perceived lack of impact of FSRE explains the
prominence of "impact" and "effectiveness" themes on the agendas of FSRE sympo-
Any number of reasons have been advanced for the poor record of FSRE:
defective links between research and extension; inadequate farmer participation; a
paucity of "on-the-shelf" technology suitable to be tailored to farmers' circumstances;
insensitivity to gender concerns, etc. Whatever the reason, appropriate correctives
must be taken, or FSRE runs the risk of fading into irrelevance. Any contribution of
FSRE to the development of a sustainable agriculture ultimately rests on our ability
to develop interventions that farmers find attractive.
1. In addition, an inherent contradiction in FSRE has been observed: highly skilled and motivated
scientists are needed to make FSRE a success, but these have a high opportunity cost; in contrast,
location-specificity restricts the benefits they can produce through any particular set of interventions
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