FARMING SYSTEMS RESEARCH AND EXTENSION (FSR/E)
IN SUPPORT OF
Charles A. Francis1
Peter E. Hildebrand2
This paper defines a close and complementary relationship
between Farming Systems Research and Extension (FSR/E) and
Sustainable Agriculture. Sustainable 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, sustainability necessarily becomes a concern in
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 Testa-
ment (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, at this
writing, completing a major study on "alternative" agriculture.
Recent USAID and World Bank projects, among others, must demon-
strate concern with "sustainability". Yet, the growing dialogue
has not contributed to a single definition of the term "sus-
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 agriculture as:
". an agriculture that can evolve indefinitely
toward greater human utility, greater efficiency of
Professor, Department of Agronomy
University of Nebraska, Lincoln 68583
professor, Food and Resource Economics
University of Florida, Gainesville 32611
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 agricul-
tural 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 depends."
The Artonomy News, in January, 1989, reported a 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 art;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 that:
"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 environment."
Some of the above statements convey the concept of sus-
tainable agriculture as a philosophy. The TAC statement expres-
ses sustainable agriculture as a goal to be 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 geographic areas.
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 the
Farming Systems Research and Extension methodology is well
adapted to help create the type of technology envisioned in a
more sustainable agriculture. FSR/E methodology:
1) was developed to help generate technology which fits the
particular types of farming systems in a specific location.
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
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
6) reduces the time from conceptualization to adoption by
incorporating the knowledge base of farmers into the process of
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, substituting 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. (Unpublished).
Harrington, L. and R. Tripp. 1984. Recommendation domains: A
framework for on-farm research. CIMMYT Economics Working
Paper 02/84. Mexico.
National Research Council. 1989. Alternative Agriculture.
National Academy of Sciences, Washington. D.C. (In press).
York, E. T. 1988. Improving sustainability with agricultural
research. Environment 30(9):18- .
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