Farming Systems Research-Extension -
Newsletter, U. Florida, 2:4-5, 1989
FARMING SYSTEMS RESEARCH AND EXTENSION (FSR/E)
IN SUPPORT OF SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE
Charles A. Francis* and Peter E. Hildebrand"
This paper defines a close and complementary
relationship between Farming Systems Research and
Extension (FSR/E) and Sustainable Agriculture. Sustaina-
ble agriculture is a set of goals or objectives for agricultural
systems. FSR/E is a methodology that incorporates a
systems, or holistic perspective. When the time dimension
is incorporated in the systems perspective, sustainable
necessarily becomes a concern in FSR/E.
Concern about the sustainability of agricultural
production has been expressed in books throughout most
of this century: Farmers of Forty Centuries (King, 1911),
An Agricultural Testament (Howard, 1943), and Feeding
a Billion (Wittwer et al.,1987). Growing interest in this
concept has developed over the past several years. The
National Research Council of the National Academy of
Sciences of the United States is, atthis writing, completing
a major study on "altemative" agriculture. Recent USAID
and World Bank projects, among others, must demonstrate
concern with "sustainability". Yet, the growing dialogue has
not contributed to a single definition of the term "sustaina-
A mechanistic definition is used by the Cooperative
Extension System in Nebraska (Univ. Nebraska, 1987):
"...a sustainable agricultural system is the result of a
management strategy which helps the producer to choose
hybrids and varieties, soil fertility packages including
rotations, pest management approach, tillage methods and
crop sequence to reduce costs of purchased inputs,
minimize the impact of the system on the immediate and
the off-farm environment, and provide a sustained level of
production and profit from farming."
More recently, Harwood (1988) defined sustainable
"...an agriculture that can evolve indefinitely toward
greater human utility, greater efficiency of resource use
and a balance with the environment that is favorable
both to humans and to most other species."
The Committee on Agricultural Sustainability for
Developing Countries, "a coalition of organizations
concerned about agricultural development" in a concept
paper, "The Transition to Agricultural Sustainability: An
Agenda for AID" defines sustainability in agriculture as:
"...the ability of an agricultural system to meet evolving
human needs without destroying and if possible,
improving the natural resource base on which it
The Agronomy News, in January 1989, reported a
*Professor, Department of Agronomy, University of Nebraska, Uncoln.
*Professor, Food and Resource Economics, University of Florida,
consensus achieved by 350 members of the ASA, CSSA
and SSSA following a "free wheeling two-hour discussion":
"A sustainable agriculture is one that, over the long term,
enhances environmental quality and the resource base on
which agriculture depends; provides for basic human food
and fiber needs, is economically viable, and enhances the
quality of life for farmers and society as a whole."
This group, as have others, agreed that the concept of
"low-inputs: is not essential to sustainable agriculture, but,
under some circumstances, may be an appropriate
approach to meeting the four criteria listed in the definition.
As reported by E. T. York in a recent issue of Environment,
the Technical Advisory Committee of the CGIAR considers
"The goal of sustainable agriculture should be to
maintain agricultural production at levels necessary to
meet the increasing needs and aspirations of an
expanding world population without degrading the
Some of the above statements convey the concept of
sustainable agriculture as a philosophy. The TAC
statement expresses sustainable agriculture as a goal to
Sbe achieved. It is in this latter context that the relationship
between sustainable agriculture (an end) and farming
systems as a clearly defined methodology (a means to an
end) can be seen.
The current polemic on sustainable agriculture obviously
manifests a concern with the thought that modern
agriculture, as practiced in much of the world today, is
non-sustainable. Conventional technologies and strategies
have led to an agriculture that uses non-renewable
resources at rates which cannot be sustained, and/or which
creates a gradual contamination of the environment.
Through the use of petroleum-based products for
mechanization and chemically enhanced production
practices, non-sustainable agriculture as we know it today
is in part the result of standardized practices over large
The opposite extreme, a perfectly sustainable agriculture
(one that could go on forever) no longer dominates. It is
found only in a few cases and as isolated habitation in the
world's largest humid tropical forests where the population
density is so low that the environment can recuperate from
the occasional slash and burn scars created in the process
of sustaining human life.
A practical working definition of "sustainable" must lie
between these two extremes. In this context, it would
probably be useful to speak of "a more sustainable
agriculture" rather than the absolute term "sustainable". A
more sustainable agriculture than that being practiced
in what we might call "modern agriculture" today would
rely less on standardized, often chemically-enhanced
production practices and instead depend on renewable
resources and use practices more in tune with local
conditions. This implies more diversity in crops produced,
changes in rotation practices, the development (or
redevelopment) of germplasm well adapted to local
environmental niches (as opposed to germplasm with
"broad adaptability") and the necessary accompanying
changes in infrastructure. A more sustainable agriculture
would be more in tune with the local resource base, make
maximum use of internal production inputs, and have
potential for sustained production and profits further into
Farming Systems Research and Extension methodology
is well adapted to help create the type of technology
envisioned in a more sustainable agriculture. FSR/E
1) was developed to help generate technology which fits
the particular types of farming systems in a specific
2) has been especially successful in areas where
conditions often change rapidly from one zone or ethnic
group to another.
3) is an approach which acknowledges diversity as implied
in the concept of "Recommendation Domains"
(Harrington and Tripp, 1984).
Diversity, in turn, implies the need for problem solving from
many perspectives. FSR/E procedures:
4) have come to grips with the challenges of combining
disciplines to help solve problems whose solutions often
lie outside the mandates of single departments or
commodity programs, or even outside the traditional
agricultural university or research institute. .-
5) feature partnership with farming families who help in its
planning and implementation.
The current rate of degradation of the environment
demands urgency in achieving more sustainable
agricultural practices. In practice, FSR/E:
6) reduces the time from conceptualization to adoption by
incorporating the knowledge base of farmers into the
process of technology generation.
7) stimulates the acquisition and use of new technological
information by farmers by helping them learn about it
first hand. This is critical because sustainable
agricultural requires more management time, substitut-
ing information for external inputs. By its very nature,
then, FSR/E methodology is distinctly appropriate for
helping develop the kind of agricultural practices that
are more in tune with local resources, that will help to
enhance the environment, and ultimately, help create a
more sustainable agriculture.
ASA/CSSA/SSSA. 1989 (Jan.) Agronomy News. p.15.
Committee on Agricultural Sustainability for Developing Countries. 1988.
The transition to sustainable agriculture: An agenda for AID.
Harrington, L. and R. Tripp. 1984. Recommendation domains: A
framework for on-farm research. CIMMYT Economics Working Paper
Harwood, R R. 1988. History of sustainable agriculture: U.S. and
international perspective. Int'l. Conf. Sustainable Agriculture Systems,
Ohio State Univ., Columbus.
National Research Council. 1989. Alternative Agriculture. National
Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C. (In press).
York, E. T. 1988. Improving sustainability with agricultural research.