Toward Sustainability Revisited
Sponsored by the Program in Sustainable Agriculture Systems
Office of Agriculture and Food Security
U.S. Agency for International Development
September 29-30, 1994
Office of Agriculture and Food Security
PATRICIA BARNES MCCONNELL, Michigan State University
LEONARD BERRY, Florida Atlantic University
JAMES BONNER, US Agency for International Development
PIERRE CROSSON, Resources for the Future
BILLY DEWALT, University of Pittsburg
MICHAEL MCDONALD DOW, National Academy of Sciences
CLIVE EDWARDS, Ohio State University
CORNELIA FLORA, Iowa State University
THURMAN GROVE, North Carolina State University
LOWELL HARDIN, Purdue University
WILLIAM L. HARGROVE, University of Georgia
ED KANEMASU, University of Georgia
JOSETTE LEWIS, US Agency for International Development
CONSTANCE NEELY, University of Georgia
PRICILLA REINING, University of Florida
We would like to express our appreciation for the intellectual
contributions of those who were able to attend the meeting or who
submitted written papers for discussion. The meeting was an
enthusiastic and enlightening review of the concepts of behind
AID's program in sustainable agriculture.
For their comments on the draft paper, we greatly appreciate
the contributions of Michael McDonald Dow, Cornelia Flora, Thurman
Grove, and Lowell Hardin. We would also like to thank the staff of
SANREM CRSP at the University of Georgia for their help in
organizing and recording the proceedings of the meeting.
Program in Sustainable
Josette Lewis, editor
Introduction and Meeting Objectives
In 1989, the National Research Council's Board on Agriculture
and Board on Science and Technology for International Development
undertook the task of planning a new program in sustainable
agriculture for the Agency for International Development (AID). The
product of this effort was a report entitled Toward Sustainability:
A Plan for Collaborative Research on Agriculture and Natural
Resource Management often referred to as the "green book."
Outlined in this report are both the conceptual framework for the
new program as well as recommendations for its structure.
The purpose of the meeting detailed here was to review and
reflect on the development of the original report's
recommendations, to review how the NRC report was translated into
AID's current program in sustainable agriculture, and to discuss
future developments in sustainable agriculture. In focusing on the
philosophy of sustainable agriculture, rather than the details of
actual programs, the following discussions taken from this meeting
are not meant to serve as an evaluation of AID's programs. The
objective, rather, was to discuss whether the goals of the
sustainable agriculture program are consistent with the report, and
to identifying any new ideas that should be incorporated into the
current program objectives.
1National Research Council. 1991. Toward Sustainability: A
Plan for Collaborative Research on Agriculture and Natural Resource
Management. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
The meeting began with a summary of Toward Sustainability,
followed by an overview of the AID Office of Agriculture programs
in sustainable agriculture systems that resulted from this report.
The largest component of this is the Sustainable Agriculture and
Natural Resource Management (SANREM) Collaborative Research Support
Program (CRSP). An outline of the approach taken by SANREM CRSP as
well as its experiences to date follows. From the discussion of
both the original planning of an initiative in sustainable
agriculture as well as seeing its current implementation, the
meeting participants raised a number of unresolved issues in the
program design which are related in the following report. Finally,
while the consensus from the meeting was that the basic concepts of
sustainable agriculture had not changed much in the past five
years, there remained important areas for future progress. The
meeting concluded with a discussion of the future of sustainable
Recap of the Development of Toward Sustainability
In 1989 Congress recommended that AID create a new program in
the CRSP format with a focus on research in sustainable agriculture
and natural resource management. This Congressional initiative came
at a time of growing support for sustainable and international
development strategies as well as a growing interest in the link
between quality of life and the quality of the environment. As
mentioned, the task of planning the framework for the new program
fell to the National Research Council, with their conclusions
described in the report Toward Sustainability. The NRC panel
recommended a program design with two parts: the first being the
primary program, SANREM CRSP, and secondly, supplemental
independent research grants in sustainable agriculture. Given that
the field of sustainable agriculture encompasses a wide range of
research areas, including agricultural commodity and production
research, soil and water resource issues, and nutrient and pest
management, the NRC panel envisioned that the new CRSP would
perform an umbrella function whereby it would integrate current
AID-supported programs, in addition to its own research
For the research priorities of the new CRSP, the panel
emphasized the need to develop an innovative approach based on
integrated systems research. Their objective was to propose support
of interdisciplinary research programs which would be driven by
end-user objectives. The planning as well as the implementation of
research projects should engage participation of the ultimate
recipients, the local farmers and communities. This was intended
not as just an outreach or extension task, but one which would
initiate and promote a new philosophy for sustainable research and
development. Further, such a program should foster collaboration
between U.S. institutions and those in developing countries.
The NRC panel was careful not to dictate a specific research
agenda for the new program, consistent with its emphasis on farmer
participation. However, given that there existed numerous gaps in
the area of sustainable agriculture research at the time, the panel
did identify several areas for emphasis as "...the least-researched
and least understood areas...". Among these were integrated
nutrient management; integrated pest management; integrated
institutional management, and research which addressed the
economic, social and institutional contexts of agriculture.
AID's Program in Sustainable Agriculture Systems
AID used the recommendations of the NRC panel as outlined in
the report to design a ten-year $26.25 million program in
sustainable agriculture and natural resource management. While the
program consists of three distinct entities: SANREM CRSP, the
independent research grants, and an information exchange program,
they are tied together by the common goals of
1. stimulating and supporting integrated systems-based
research which fosters a greater understanding of the
interaction between agricultural production, natural
resources, and the socioeconomic and political
2. giving priority to agricultural activities which optimize
natural resource utilization in an environmentally sound
3. providing greater .balance and integration in the Office
of Agriculture of agricultural, ecological, and
socioeconomic policy goals;
4. establishing analytical methods for evaluating
interdisciplinary systems research based on multiple
criteria including productivity, profitability,
stability, equity, environmental quality, and
sustainability, and finally,
5. emphasizing end-user participation at all levels of
project planning, implementation, and evaluation.
To achieve these goals, research support is aimed at projects that
will lead to a more complete understanding of agroecological
systems, an understanding of how to balance the maintenance or
improvement of productivity while reducing adverse off-site impacts
where possible. Again, such research must also integrate
interdisciplinary research with systems analysis as well as
encourage collaboration between U.S. scientists and those in
With these objectives in mind, proposals to conduct the SANREM
CRSP portion of such a research program with AID were reviewed by
the NRC panel. Evaluation was based on their fit with the new
paradigm outlined above. In addition, while scientific methods are
used in an approach to research and development, farmer
participation must be an integral part of the research process. The
proposal by the University of Georgia, selected for its best match
to AID's goals, is described below.
SANREM CRSP'S Approach to Research & Development in Sustainable
Consistent with an interdisciplinary, systems research
philosophy, the SANREM CRSP is built on a landscape/lifescape
approach. The landscape portion refers to analysis of entire
ecological systems, including the natural resources surrounding
farmed lands. By design, this translates into the comprehensive
study of watershed systems. Linked to this analysis of agricultural
and natural resources is complementary research on the social,
political and economic structure of the community and government as
it contributes to agricultural practices. To ensure an
interdisciplinary focus, individual research projects are evaluated
by teams which include representation from areas such as ecology
and natural resources, agricultural and biological sciences, social
sciences, and geography.
Further, the program supports AID's goals of user
participation by actively engaging input from farmers, businesses,
members of the community and local governments at all stages of the
work. This participatory approach is based on the model of Dr.
Robert Rhoades (University of Georgia) termed Farmer-Back-to-
Farmer The model emphasizes that the ultimate decision on the
value of research appropriately lies with the end-user: the farmer,
or in a broader sense, the local community. Thus, input from those
who should ultimately benefit from the products of research must be
Rhoades, R.E. 1984. Breaking New Ground: Agricultural
Anthropology. Lima, International Potato Center.
included in the identification of research priorities, in the
research itself, its adaptation to on-farm use, and, finally, in
its evaluation. A diagram depicting this model is shown in appendix
On a final philosophical note, the SANREM CRSP approach
emphasizes international and interinstitutional involvement. This
means research projects are a collaborative effort among
governmental, university, and non-governmental organization from
both the U.S. and other countries as well as involvement by the
international agricultural research centers, and AID.
The process by which the SANREM CRSP implements these ideas
into its research projects begins with extensive networking at the
research site to engage the interest of all the participants. This
is followed by a Participatory Landscape/Lifescape Appraisal which
is a rapid diagnosis involving local community members to identify
the constraints or critical problems facing the farmers and
community. During the diagnostic process, a concerted effort is
made to represent a diverse cross-section of the community, not
just those who speak the loudest. The information from this
appraisal is then shared with a wider group through workshops. An
integral component of the demand-driven approach, these meetings
serve to develop the research agenda. Including not only the
research questions, but also a ranking of their priority, this
agenda is laid out as a framework plan. The research then consists
of discrete task-oriented projects, each task being
interdisciplinary and interinstitutional, and each relevant to the
overall framework plan for the site.
An important part of the process, both before and during
implementation of the research are activities designed to educate
participants as to the purpose and methods of research, to heighten
awareness of the "whole picture." The emphasis on a participatory
methodology translates into much up-front time and effort to engage
community members. The assumption, however, is that these high
initial costs will result in a more effective and sustainable
program later down the line. Over the long-term, the impact of
SANREM's activities will test this hypothesis.
Currently SANREM is working at three core sites in the
subtropics: the Philippines, Burkina Faso, and Ecuador.
Additionally, there are linkages to research in Honduras, Cape
Verde, and Costa Rica. The stage of project development at each
site varies at this point, but all the core sites follow the
process of implementation outlined above. To complement and
integrate the site-specific work into a global perspective, the
SANREM program has cross-cutting working groups in education and
training, end-user and gender issues, Geographic Information
Service (GIS) data collection and modeling, and, finally, a group
on indicators of sustainability.
As a consequence of the fact that the research conducted by
SANREM CRSP is driven by end-user concerns, the program will not
necessarily answer basic questions of agricultural productivity.
Instead, the primary output will be a new research and development
methodology developed through an experimental field study involving
an integrative, systems approach to agriculture-based development
which is participatory in nature.
Experiences of SANREM CRSP to Date
The design of the SANREM program is intentionally broad to
allow the flexibility required for interdisciplinary and end-user
driven research. On a practical level, this, plus the emphasis on
participation, means that compromises and restrictions must be made
to keep the program moving towards its objectives. As mentioned,
there is a burden of time associated with invoking participation
and in maintaining the interest and commitment of collaborators.
However, preliminary observation suggests that the emphasis on
participation has instilled some measure of ownership among the
collaborators, farmers, and community members while beginning to
provide them with the training and tools to actively contribute to
the success of a project. Further conflicts arise due to the
interdisciplinary aspect of projects. Each group may have its own
priorities and language that complicate cooperative efforts. While
interdisciplinary research can create discord, it has instigated
collaboration between groups that have rarely collaborated
historically. Finally, as will be discussed in more detail later,
the lack of a traditional narrowly defined research agenda can lead
to frustration at the institutional level as institutions struggle
to adapt to interdisciplinary research.
In summary, while the SANREM CRSP has not proven the
methodology yet, their experience thus far suggests that the time
spent up-front in carefully defining research objectives as well as
invoking participation will save time and resources in the long
run. These observations concerning the experiences of the SANREM
CRSP to date were balanced perceptively in a presentation given by
Drs. Bill Hargrove and Constance Neely (University of Georgia)
which is summarized in appendix B.
Unresolved Issues Then as Well as Now
During the course of the meeting, the participants from the
original NRC panel who helped formulate the objectives of the
sustainable agriculture program expressed support for how their
recommendations have been implemented. The consensus was that
SANREM CRSP has incorporated most of the key ideas they outlined in
Towards Sustainability. Revisiting the report, however, also raised
a number of issues not resolved by the original panel and which
remain as challenges to AID's program in sustainable agriculture.
Primary among them is the definition of 'sustainability'.
According to Dr. Clive Edwards (Ohio State University) one could
list 600-plus definitions of the term used in the literature. While
almost an amusing dilemma in that context, it is, however, not a
trivial issue. Perceptions associated with the term, and the
interpretation one chooses, decide the weight given to different
components of the sustainability issue. In particular, the term may
be interpreted as suggesting that traditional agriculture is
unsustainable, and thus wrong. Some participants at the meeting
maintained that the term 'agroecology' would have been more
appropriate and would have avoided the difficulties associated with
'sustainable agriculture.' This alternative term, however, would
dilute the social component of sustainable agriculture.
In a programmatic sense, a more relevant issue is the relative
weight given to the maintenance or improvement of the natural
resource base as opposed to increasing economic growth. This brings
the traditional dichotomy between natural resource scientists and
economists back into focus. From the economist's perspective,
sustainability implies continual economic growth, while many
ecologists maintain that there are ecological constraints to
economic growth. The debate continues as to the compatibility of
these two objectives. With population pressures increasing in many
developing countries, the relative importance of environmental
quality versus agricultural productivity becomes even more
critical. While this compatibility remains a salient issue in the
overall scope of sustainable agriculture, it may be more of an
academic question to the field work of SANREM CRSP. At the heart of
SANREM's focus is an interdisciplinary approach to local problem
solving, not one which will systematically solve universal problems
in the agricultural and natural resource sciences. As mentioned
before, the scope of sustainable agriculture is too broad to
attempt to settle all issues which fall into its arena. This
dichotomy was nicely encapsulated by Dr. Thurman Grove (North
Carolina State University) when he compared sustainable agriculture
to the theory of evolution: it is difficult to define all the
concepts, yet it provides a unifying framework for conducting
Another issue which has impacted the program, and will become
increasingly important, is the difficultly in developing indicators
of sustainability with which to evaluate the success of the
research. In part, this is tied to the problem of defining
'sustainability' since the outcome of the research should be judged
in terms of the initial objectives. However, more relevant is the
fact that it represents an interdisciplinary and integrated
approach. This means that the indicators will be system properties
that are complex and derived from a number of different fields,
including both quantitative scientific data and sociological
information that tends to be more qualitative. The challenge is to
identify a discrete set of indicators which, while not all-
encompassing, can serve as representative of the sustainability
Part of the difficulty in evaluating research in
sustainability is the trend in systems-based research toward
qualitative results. Inherently, such research includes areas which
cannot easily be quantified: human values, social, and cultural
practices. The difficulty comes in blending these qualitative
factors with the quantitative output of other sciences. Getting
reductionist scientists to appreciate the validity of such
qualitative results further complicates the evaluation of
interdisciplinary systems research.
Two specific aspects of the sustainable agriculture program
design also came under discussion again. There had been
disagreement amongst members of the NRC panel over the choice of
research sites. The debate centered on the choice between a fragile
ecological zone, where natural resource degradation due to
agricultural practices are particularly evident, or an area with
the highest potential for productivity gains. The former would
allow a vigorous test of the compatibility of agriculture with
maintenance of the natural resource base. In contrast, increasing
productivity on land better endowed with respect to natural
resources could relieve pressure on more fragile ecosystems. While
the choice was to site the research in the subtropics, a fragile
ecological zone, the question remains pertinent.
Finally, attention returned to one component of AID's program
in sustainable agriculture, that of the competitive research
grants. These were designed to bring complementary research outside
of SANREM CRSP into the umbrella of AID's program. Although the
objective remains, no grants have been awarded to date. This
reflects, primarily, funding constraints but also institutional
difficulties concerning how the grants will be administered. Such
institutional constraints represent a hurdle at many levels and are
discussed more fully below.
Areas for Future Progress
The overwhelming theme throughout the meeting was that the
success of sustainable agriculture depends primarily on the
continued conversion of institutional and intellectual value
systems to accommodate an integrative systems approach to research.
A critical mass of research programs in this area is necessary to
initiate real momentum and change along the lines that the program
in sustainable agriculture proposes.
The importance of intellectual values cannot be underestimated
since it is the perception of what is important which determines
the direction of research. While the concepts embodied in the field
of sustainable agriculture have been around for quite some time,
there remain researchers and policy makers who do not believe the
reductionist approach of traditional agricultural research is
inconsistent with sustainable agriculture. With this bias, they
will resist some of the fundamental changes necessary to support
interdisciplinary systems research. Sustainable agricultural
research has not really achieved full interdisciplinarity yet, and
may best be described as multidisciplinary; personal perspectives
and biases still prevail.
These stumbling blocks represent bigger hurdles at the
institutional level. In this regard, AID's sustainable agriculture
program represents a management and institutional test as much as
a scientific one. While the program was initiated at AID, the
Agency itself lacks the integration between agricultural and
environmental concerns that is one of the program objective. Here,
as at universities, conflict arises when new connections must be
superimposed upon current management frameworks. In so doing, one
confronts historical hierarchies and relationships that complicate
the formation of collaborative arrangements. Of particular issue at
universities is the difficulty in evaluating systems research in
tenure reviews. The type and time scale of results from such
research do not always accommodate traditional evaluation criteria.
Without innovative approaches to working around institutional
constraints, all these factors can discourage the type of new
paradigm required by sustainable agriculture. In addition to
innovative management schemes, personal communication will play a
significant role in breaking through these barriers.
As to how AID's program in sustainable agriculture impacts on
the developing world, there are several additional issues for
further consideration. Differences in economic and natural
resources endowments between the U.S. and many developing countries
can result in the difficulty of transferring some agricultural
technologies. This requires that some agricultural research
conducted at U.S. universities be targeted specifically towards the
needs of developing countries. It also emphasizes the importance of
building a research capacity in developing countries to ensure the
sustainability of development efforts. At the center of capacity
building is participation, education, and continued technology
A final issue that impacts the future of the sustainable
agriculture field as a whole is the decreasing interest in
supporting agricultural research worldwide. Compounding this is the
trend in many developing countries toward an emphasis on increasing
economic returns rather than on food production or sustainability
issues. This translates into decreased funding for the type of
innovative agricultural research advocated by the programs
discussed here. At the same time that agriculture is declining in
the conscience of many people, population growth and inequity of
income distribution are increasing in developing countries. This
combination of increasing population and increasing per capital food
demand must be met by increasing agricultural output in an
environmentally and socially acceptable manner. Clearly, innovative
research in agriculture and natural resource management must come
back to the forefront to meet these needs.
Farmer Evaluation -
SSoiuon batter fitted
to farm condidstk
By Bill Hargrove and Constance Neely and lots of others.
On the One Hand On the Other Hand
1. Inclusion of all the 1. Requires more communication,
stakeholders is essential to coordination, negotiation,
the accomplishment of your management, conflict resolution,
goals. and time. There is a critical
mass of partners, beyond which
coordination becomes the
limiting factor. Formalizing a
system of coordination should be
done as early as possible.
2. At two sites, we have shown 2. You may not get the detail that
that the PLLA is a useful and you really need and "experts"
efficient approach: a) to will question whether it was
identify and establish needed.
research priorities and b) to
understand the biophysical
and socioeconomic constraints
to sustainability as well as
3. Participatory workshops are 3. You raise expectations that may
excellent forums for open not be realized and you open
discussion by the different yourself up for open warfare.
stakeholders concerning both
the constraints that were
identified and how those
constraints should be
4. Mutual trust and commitment 4. It requires constant attention.
are absolutely necessary.
5. The structure of the SANREM 5. It can be cumbersome and time
CRSP in the host countries consuming. The time required to
has created opportunities for implement this according to
taking ownership by philosophy has been frustrating
collaborators. for U.S. and IARC scientists.
6. As a result of the 6. Expectations can be raised; you
participatory landscape have no power to do something
approach, the community's about some big issues which
awareness of the landscape might be identified.
and sustainability issues
within that context has been
7. Through the participatory 7. You set yourself up for
process, institutions who continuing conflict.
have normally not been
working together are now
partnering for solutions.
8. Through this process, 8. That doesn't mean they like it.
agricultural, biological, and Truly achieving
social scientists are working interdisciplinarity and
together. participation are easy to talk
about but difficult to achieve.
9. The SANREM CRSP training 9. You can not involve everyone.
program has provided
participants with tools in
approaches and an interactive
and pragmatic learning
experience on sustainability
10. Providing a forum for 10. It can be expensive.
exchange of information
between sites increased our
effectiveness and efficiency.
11. Electronic conferencing 11. It is harder to have any
allowed us to engage 200 social contact by e-mail.
people from 30 countries for
less than $20,000.
12. Philosophies and
methodologies of the SANREM
CRSP have filtered into both
U.S. and Host-country
13. Sustainable agricultural 13. Time and personnel needs
technologies must be an are increased.
integration of indigenous
knowledge, historical data,
and western science to
adequately build a foundation
for the adoption of
14. Think global act local. 14.
relationships between local
and global trends allows for
the basis for catalyzing
15. For sustainability, research, 15. It is not easy and people
extension, development and are not ready to buy it.
education must be integrated
and not compartmentalized.
16. The investment of time in the 16. Now we know, then we did
beginning especially in not.
leveling off, expectation
setting, and work plan
mechanics saves time in the
17. There are many advantages to 17. It causes a lot of
not having a blueprint, frustration with AID/W,
of Georgia, etc.
18. You must be prepared for the 18. There is no way you can
moving targets of AID/W and prepare for it.
19. Big money projects have
presented a challenge to our
no frills operation. (Per
20. It is necessary that 20. It takes time, effort and
management change to fit the communications.
program. This has required
programmatic changes as well
as management at our own
institutions. It has
required innovation through