Sustaining the harvest

Posted: 18 September 2000

Author: John Thompson and Fiona Hinchcliffe

A recent global analysis of 109 sustainable programmes and projects in 26 countries has shown that resource conserving methods and farmer-centred approaches can produce startling increases in food production and contribute to the regeneration of rural economies. John Thompson and Fiona Hinchcliffe from the International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED), which carried out the research, report here on its important findings.

women farmersWinnowing wheat, Rajasthan, India© Mark Edwards/Still PicturesBy the year 2025, the world will have to support some 8.3 billion people. Even though enough food is produced in aggregate to feed everyone, some 800 million people still do not have access to sufficient food. This includes 180 million children who are underweight and suffering from malnutrition.

Recent approaches to agricultural development have largely failed to reduce the absolute numbers of the food insecure or to ensure environmental sustainability. While global achievements in food production have been impressive in the last 50 years, global inequalities in people's ability to acquire food, remains one of the biggest obstacles to achieving food security for all. Unfortunately, many policy-makers still fail to recognise that there is much more to creating food-secure livelihoods than simply producing more food, especially in the complex, diverse, risk-prone environments of the developing world.

That is where the more sustainable forms of agriculture have so much more to contribute.

Making agriculture sustainable Sustainable agricultural systems deliberately integrate and take advantage of naturally occurring beneficial interactions. They emphasise management over technology, and biological relationships and natural processes over chemically intensive methods. The objective of these systems is to enhance and manage complexity, rather than reduce and simplify the biophysical interactions on which agricultural production depends. This can be done by minimising the dependency on external inputs, such as fertilisers and pesticides, and by regenerating internal resources. This increases the likelihood that improvements will persist, as dependencies on external systems are kept to a reasonable minimum.

But sustainable agriculture is also a lot more besides. A key emphasis is on the participation of farmers and rural people in all processes of problem solving. This ensures more equitable access to productive resources and better use of local knowledge, practices and resources. The ultimate outcome is an increase in self-reliance among farmers and rural organisations.

Adopting sustainable agriculture does not mean a return to some form of low-technology, 'backward' or 'traditional' agriculture. Instead it pursues a blend of innovations that may originate with scientists, with farmers or both.

But precise and absolute definitions of sustainability are impossible. One of the central aims of sustainable agriculture is that the approach should be flexible, and not prescribe a pre-defined set of technologies, practices or policies. This would only serve to restrict the future options of farmers. As conditions change and as knowledge changes, so too must farmers and farming communities. Sustainable agriculture is, therefore, not a simple model or package to be imposed. It is more a process of learning and adaptation.