Agronomy's role in sustainable agriculture

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Agronomy's role in sustainable agriculture
Hildebrand, Peter E.
Place of Publication:
Las Vegas, NV
Hildebrand, Peter E. (American Society of Agronomy meeting)
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Subjects / Keywords:
Farming ( LCSH )
Agriculture ( LCSH )
Farm life ( LCSH )
Farms ( jstor )
Farming systems ( jstor )
Sustainable agriculture ( jstor )
Spatial Coverage:
South America -- Brazil
Haiti -- Caribbean
North America -- United States of America -- Florida -- Caribbean
North America -- United States of America -- Texas -- Caribbean

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University of Florida
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Resource Identifier:
191208859 ( OCLC )


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Peter E. Hildebrand 2

The agricultural systems that have been built up over the past few decades have
contributed greatly to the alleviation of hunger and the raising of living standards.
They have served their purposes up to a point. But they were built for the
purposes of a smaller, more fragmented world. New realities reveal their inherent
contradictions. These realities require agricultural systems that focus as much
attention on people as they do on technology, as much on resources as on
production, as much on the long term as on the short term. Only such systems can
meet the challenge of the future. (WCED, 1987, p. 144)

The world is becoming a smaller place. Phenomena which only a few decades ago we
may never have known about are today transmitted live and instantaneously around the world via satellites in space. The WCED report, cited above and often referred to as the Bruntland report, makes an interesting observation on space:

In the middle of the 20th century, we saw our planet from space for the first time.
. From space, we see a small and fragile ball dominated not by human activity
and edifice but by a pattern of clouds, oceans, greenery, and soils. Humanity's
inability to fit its doings into that pattern is changing planetary systems,
fundamentally. (p. 1)

It is, perhaps, a quantum leap from farming systems to planetary systems. However, to put into perspective the relationship between sustain- ability and farming systems, we need to make at least most of the leap.

Concern with sustainable agriculture, and by extension, sustainable development, did not originate only in Florida, for example, where we are contaminating the ground water with agricultural chemicals and wastes nor in the High Plains of Texas with the depletion of the Ogallala aquifer. It has been influenced powerfully in recent years by the burning of the Amazon rain forest, the desertification of the Sahelian region in Africa, and by the denuded hillsides in Haiti. The concern spans the globe, if not the planetary system, and is directly related to the pressure put on this planet's natural resources by a burgeoning human population. These phenomena are being reported widely by all forms of media. Who amongst us has not seen articles about the depletion of the tropical rain forests in everything from the New York Times to our local newspapers, the Scientific American or the Economist. And it may be surprising how many of us have heard of Chico Mendes, the rubber tapper from the western Amazon rain forest, who was killed because he was the head of a group trying to protect part of the rain forest as an extractive reserve.

1 Presented at the American Society of Agronomy meetings in Las Vegas,
Nevada, October 16, 1989.
2 Professor, Food and Resource Economics Department, University of
Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611.

Sustainable Apriculture

The term 'sustainable agriculture' is difficult to define because it means different things to different people at different times. For example, it is possible to think of sustainability in such terms as economic, political, social, cultural, institutional, and ecological. Yet many people use the term sustainable agriculture, so it apparently is intuitively comprehensible. For this reason, let me raise some questions about the sustainability of several farming systems without defining the term, but to put into perspective some of the difficulties associated with its use.

Is the farming system of a rubber tapper who collects rubber and Brazil nuts from wild
trees on perhaps 250 hectares of Brazilian rain forest and produces crops or pasture on only a few hectares sustainable? Or is the farmer in a colonization project in the same rain forest developing a more sustainable system? What about the small farmers in Peru and Bolivia who produce coca leaves for the incredibly lucrative illegal drug market? Is their system sustainable? What about citrus producers in Central or Southwest Florida where tourist attractions and urban concentrations are expanding explosively? Or the small grain and livestock farming systems in the near desert, rained areas of Morocco? Or, for that matter, the mixed farming systems found in north Florida or the corn/soybean cash grain farms in the midwestern US?

Most of these systems have something in common. They are in a state of flux and changing, or subject to change, quite rapidly. For example, in the Brazilian Amazon, as the rubber tappers organize and break the hold of the traditional rubber barons, they begin to produce more of their own food and may sell a little surplus. They also begin to need animals to provide their own means of transport. Hence, slowly their holdings begin to look more like some of the colonists in the same area who tend to farm more land, and would like to become cattlemen, but also harvest the wild rubber and Brazil nut trees left standing on their 50 hectare holdings. In turn, the colonists are always tempted to sell their cleared land to the larger ranchers, who, most people argue, have a farming system that is not sustainable with present technology.

Sustainable agriculture, therefore, is not a constant state. Nor, as some would argue, is it a return to a former state. Similarly, it is not necessarily low input. There have probably been more grain combines and square straw balers sold in Morocco in recent years than in the United States! If we consider biological sustainability as the length of time a particular system can be maintained, then we must consider that chemicals can substitute for rotations or fallow, at least for some time. The coca farmers use chemicals and probably have systems that are biologically sustainable for a number of years. However, given current events, they may very well be concerned with the short term economic sustainability of their systems. The ranchers in the Brazilian rain forest are becoming concerned with the political sustainability of their system. And farmers in the United States and Europe are becoming concerned with the ecological sustainability of their farming systems.

Farming Systems and Technology Adontion

The concepts of sustainability aside, it should be obvious that farming systems,
themselves, are very complex. Individual farming systems result from combining the resources and time available to farm managers into a set of enterprises and activities that provide for the needs and desires of the farm families (or corporate or government entities) who control the resources. The set of enterprises that form a farming system results from the environment within which the farms operate. On family farms (as opposed to corporate or government farms), this environment is influenced as much by socioeconomic factors, such as competing family needs for available cash, as it is by biophysical factors such as soils and climate. The environment in an individual field is also influenced by socioeconomic, as well as biophysical factors. For example, a field that is prepared and planted late provides a poorer environment for a crop than an otherwise identical field that was prepared and planted on time. It is for these reasons that farms and fields vary a great deal from one another.

Over the last few decades, in industrialized countries farmers were able to use
technologies that could overcome these field and farm differences. These technologies were broadly adaptable because many of our farmers had the resources and the capital to be able to dominate the natural components of their environments with irrigation, chemicals and/or mechanization. Furthermore, our agricultural policies, supported for many years by the philosophy that farmers "should get big or get out", encouraged wide adoption of this kind of technology. Recently, with rising concerns for a more sustainable agriculture, there is pressure to reduce the use of fossil fuels, the amount of irrigation water, and off-farm produced chemicals. Policy makers are beginning to change the incentives which encouraged the use of broadly adaptable technologies. These factors will influence the kinds of technologies farmers will be able to use. In the future, new technologies will have to conform with the environments where they will be used, not dominate them. This means there will be an increasing need for locationsvecific solutions to emerging farm problems. These, then, are the challenges to agronomy in the future.

Institutional Setting

Agronomists ply their trade today in an institutional setting that has responded to the same forces that molded farm environments over the last few decades. Associated with environmental changes affecting farms and farming over this time period has been an institutional drift toward specialization. Many agronomists work in a Land Grant university or similar setting with research and extension, as well as teaching responsibilities. Beginning, perhaps, in 1962 with the publication of Roger's Diffusion of Innovations, the definition of clientele began to shift from that which was the basis of the establishment of the Land Grant system. We started to look at who was adopting the new technologies being produced. We called them "innovators" or "early adopters" as opposed to the "laggards" who did not adopt the technology. We studied the characteristics of the adopters and began to consider them as our clients for whom we developed more technology. This created a drift toward technology requiring heavy capital inputs, one of the characteristics of the innovators and early adopters. One of my colleagues reminded me recently that in north Florida, many of these innovators had the least sustainable systems during the last decade and a high proportion no longer farm.

As technology became more sophisticated, researchers and extension workers became increasingly specialized. Increasing specialization created communication problems as each specialty developed its own vocabulary. In agriculture, this specialization, or narrowing of focus away from the whole farm and toward its components, fomented a drift away from farmers as the primary clientele group. Specialized agronomists, an increasing number without farm backgrounds, were less able to communicate with farmers who were unable to understand the specialized vocabulary. As a result, the new clientele Prout) for those in the Land Grant system became their own veers -- those within the specialty group and the only persons with whom
there was easy communication. The most evident manifestation of this orientation is the emphasis on journal articles rather than technology adoption as a criterion for professional advancement. A more subtle result is that much research is designed to have a high probability of statistically significant results, therefore more readily publishable. Practical significance takes a back seat, as does research directly applicable to solving farmers' problems. Perhaps even worse, this situation foments a proprietary attitude toward data, inhibiting collaborative efforts.

3 George Axinn (1978) describes an institutional development cycle which
involves the degree of specialization. A certain amount of specialization can create efficiency, but increases communication requirements. At some point an institution reaches optimum development. Beyond this point, further speciaLization generates increasingly severe communication problems until communication, and therefore, collaboration is no Longer possibLe. At this point, the institution moves into a decline or negative development phase.

The pressure is particularly great on young faculty needing tenure and promotion who almost inevitably take the least risky alternative to a sustainable job!

The Dilemma

The dilemma facing agronomists in a world increasingly concerned with sustainable
agriculture is that they face a need to solve urgent, location- specific problems in an institutional setting that places more emphasis on journal articles, and therefore the statistical significance of obscure results, than on the importance of the results to the industry. If that were not bad enough, it is becoming increasingly obvious that in sustainable agriculture it is necessary to work collaboratively in multidisciplinary teams, in an institutional structure that rewards persons so highly specialized they have difficulty communicating, sometimes even with persons in the same discipline or department.

Agronomy's Role in Sustainable Apariculture

Agronomists are in the front line in the battle to create a more sustainable agriculture; an agriculture that meets our needs, but is kinder to the environment and reduces the drainage on non-renewable resources so we will not jeopardize the potential for future generations to satisfy their needs. To accomplish this task will require some shifts in methods, habits and incentives that have been built up over several decades.

Many agronomists will need to return to the farm. Because of the location-specificity of farm environments and the need to formulate solutions more in tune with these environments, it will be necessary to carry out first-hand assessments of farmers'conditions, problems, needs and desires in order to understand their environments. These assessments should provide orientation for research and extension programs so investment in them is more effective and efficient. Because sustainable technology will be less able to dominate environments but will need to fit into them, we will encounter more treatment by environment interaction in our experiments than we are used to. This will make it critical for much more research to be carried out on farms and under farm conditions than in the past. Simply moving experiment station conditions to a farm will not suffice -- the purpose of on-farm research is to help us understand and work with real farm environments and variability. Research must be designed to help us understand environmental interaction and farm to farm variability so we can make recommendations for specific environments. This approach will also have a positive impact on biodiversity, a priority of many concerned with the loss of genetic variability. Research must also be designed so farmers can help evaluate results, not just observe results in a demonstration. Well designed onfarm research can serve demonstration purposes, but most demonstrations serve poorly for research.

Closer contact with farmers and on-farm research will require that agronomists work
more closely with persons from other disciplines including economics, anthropology and animal science, as well as horticulture and pathology. Multidisciplinary on-farm research and extension will require more than simply having joint projects. Failures of multidisciplinary efforts frequently result because teams are organized more as committees that meet occasionally to 'coordinate' efforts but in which the crop work is left to the agronomists, the surveys to the anthropologists and the desks to the economists. In these cases there is not a single identified product but rather several products or reports purported to be concerned about the same problem. Agronomists should work with anthropologists and economists to assure that these social scientists have an adequate understanding of the crop components of the farming systems. They in turn will help assure that agronomists understand the human elements and their impact on the crop systems. Animal scientists need to interact with both the social and plant scientists to assure an adequate understanding of the plant/animal interaction and of the interaction of these components with the human element. Close multidisciplinary team collaboration will help assure that relevant problems are researched and goprogriate evaluation criteria are utilized in the analysis and interpretation of data. Evaluation criteria will be more location specific than we

have become accustomed to with the use of kg ha-1 as a universal (although not necessarily universally valid) criterion. A criterion such as kg of a product per hectare of forest destroyed may have meaning in the rain forest, but not in south Florida where gallons of milk produced per unit of phosphate leached would be more appropriate.

On-farm research has a number of benefits that cannot be achieved with fixed-location station research. It can help us avoid the selection of technologies that perform well under controlled conditions but fail or perform poorly under real farm conditions. More important, it can help us avoid rejecting technology which might do well under farm conditions but does poorly in the superior environments we create for research purposes on experiment stations. If we know farmers are watching and evaluating our research, we are more apt to use evaluation criteria that are important to them and not use only criteria that are important to us as researchers. With the selection of a wide range of environments, it is often possible with appropriate design and analysis, for example, Modified Stability Analysis (Hildebrand, 1984) to reduce substantially the number of years of testing required before recommendations can be made or plant material named and released. And during the testing, on-farm research can be used for demonstration as well as evaluation purposes.

Administrative structures and professional evaluation procedures will need to be modified to reflect new responsibilities and methods if agronomists are to accept this role in sustainable agriculture. On-farm research does not preclude publishable results nor publishing. But because the orientation for on-farm research is development and testing of technology for sustainable agriculture, less time is available for the tasks associated with publishing. Multiple authorship can also be a problem particularly in multidisciplinary teams and when priority for professional advancement is placed with single author articles or there is concern with "senior authorship". The most appropriate audiences for many articles are not necessarily those who read the mainline professional journals. Choices may have to be made between readership and disciplinary. Travel budgets will have to be increased, but these costs can often be offset by the investments farmers make in on-farm research. Farmers usually provide land, machines, labor and other inputs for research that interests them. This can be a significant savings compared to station research. Provision should be made to provide Principal Investigator status to multidisciplinary teams instead of to individuals. This provides more assurance that participation in a team effort will reap at least as much reward as individual effort.

In closing let me repeat a statement made by Congressman George E. Brown (1989, P. 103) at these meetings last year:

Sustainability is a useful concept for focusing agricultural research because it captures a diverse set of concerns about agriculture as an economic system, an
ecological system, and a social system.

Agronomy's role in sustainable agriculture is pivotal. As problem solvers, agronomists face a new and rigorous challenge. The world's human population is burgeoning. The technologies developed over the past few decades, as successful as they were in feeding the world, are consuming resources and contaminating the environment at rates which promise doom for future generations. We must use all our scientific capacity and innovative genius to devise new, more sustainable farming systems. We must continue to feed the world. But in doing so, we must find ways to do so with less destruction to earth's biosphere which is home to us all.


Axinn, George H. 1978. New strategies for rural development. Rural Life Associates. East Lansing, MI.

Brown, George E., Jr. 1989. The critical challenges facing the structure and function of agricultural research. 3. Prod. Agric. 2:98-102. Hildebrand, Peter E. 1984. Modified stability analysis of farmer-managed, on-farm trials. Agron. J. 76:271-274.

Rogers, Everett M. 1962. Diffusion of innovations. The Free Press. New York. World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). 1987. Our common future. Oxford University Press. Oxford.


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