Toward sustainability revisited

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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
Atlanta, Georgia

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
Agriculture Systems

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

developing countries.

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



Farmer Scientist

of problem


Seeking Solutions:



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
their interrelationships.

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
innovative research
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
sustainable practices.

14. Think global act local. 14.
Understanding the
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
long run.

17. There are many advantages to 17. It causes a lot of
not having a blueprint, frustration with AID/W,
USAID missions,
Subcontractees, University
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.
USAID missions.

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