Presentation given to the Ministry of Environment & Natural Resources Republic of Moldova | 1994

By Roger Blobaum at the Senior Staff Seminar, Ministry of Environment & Natural Reources, Republic of Moldova, Kishinev, Moldova, July 8, 1994

I want to express my appreciation to Minister Fandofan for inviting me and to thank all of you for coming.  It is a special privilege to be making a presentation to environmental and natural resources administrators engaged in building a new independent country.  Protecting your new nation’s rich soil and other natural resources is a heavy responsibility.

You have an opportunity to learn from the mistakes that other countries, including my own, have made.  In my home state of Iowa, which has some of the world’s richest farmland, half of the topsoil was lost to erosion during the first 100 years of farming. We have discovered, almost too late, that it is better to emphasize prevention rather than pay later for expensive environmental restoration and cleanup. Sustainable agriculture should be a cornerstone of wise public policy relating to the environment.  Your soil is a national treasure and you cannot afford to take chances with it.

Although my recent work has included serving as the director of a small agricultural research and education institute, I am primarily a policy person.  My professional work has been mainly in the often controversial policy area where agriculture and the environment come together.  I also have worked as an agricultural policy specialist in both houses of the U.S. Congress.  So I understand that you have political and funding constraints and that change takes patience, time, and leadership.

My work as associate director of the World Sustainable Agriculture Association takes me to many parts of the world to promote a new approach to agriculture.  My organization is promoting a global transition to the kind of agriculture that conserves natural resources and is environmentally sound.

I sense there is a strong feeling here, as there is in America and other countries where agriculture is a strong sector, that the intensive farming practices adopted since World War II are causing too much environmental damage and must be greatly modified or abandoned.

I also have been working as a VOCA sustainable agriculture specialist with the Regional Environmental Center in Budapest, which serves 10 countries in Central and Eastern Europe.  There appears to be general agreement in that part of the world on the need to make a transition to smaller, privately held units and to more environmentally sound farming methods.  The conditions appear to be right for making a new beginning in agriculture in this region in terms of both structure and methods.  To an outsider, this would appear to be a truly historic agricultural moment.

Global Transition

What is happening here is part of something much larger. A global transition to sustainable agriculture is finally beginning and the Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero in Brazil two years ago was a turning point. I am cautiously optimistic about small changes being adopted by some national governments and international agencies and institutions and, more important, by a growing number of farmers around the world.

There are new signs of international consensus, such as the commitments made at the Earth Summit to begin resolving some of the conflicts between agricultural development and environmental protection.  The question no longer is whether more sustainable methods will be adopted.  The question is how do we do it in ways that enable the agricultural sector to remain strong and productive and how long will it take.

Approaches referred to initially as alternative agriculture, and more recently as sustainable agriculture, are gaining ground. They are known in various parts of the world as “low impact”, “organic”, “low input”, “regenerative”, “biological”, “ecological”, “agroecological”, “biological recycling”, “biodynamic”, and “nature” farming.  Some in Poland are calling it “balanced” farming.  And a scientist at a meeting here in Moldova last week suggested it should be called “reasonable” farming.

Some of these approaches are more sustainable than others. But all of them are models of the agriculture of the future.  It is interesting that they have been developed primarily by farmers themselves and that they are being spread farmer-to-farmer rather than imposed in the more traditional “top down” style of most agricultural professionals.  The farmers who have adopted these new approaches also have developed direct contacts with consumers and have tried to respond to their concerns about food safety, to their interest in local production and traditional crops, and to their questions relating to the adverse impact of farming practices on the environment.

These alternative farming approaches also meet the test of sustainable development, which has been defined as economic activity that does not deplete the land, or its people, and that preserves the Earth’s resources for future generations.  It recognizes that we are caretakers of the Earth during the time we are here.  And that we have an obligation to pass it on to our children in a condition at least as good as we found it.

Sustainable agriculture should be viewed as a goal or a destination and not as a set of prescribed practices.  It is site specific and relies heavily on the wisdom of farmers and their ability to adapt practices to local soil, weather, and other conditions.  It also requires a partnership with Nature, rather than an attempt to manipulate or dominate or subdue it.

The Earth Summit provided a highly publicized opportunity to acknowledge that a growing number of people around the world, including many agricultural scientists and policymakers, are concerned about the long-term sustainability of agriculture. They are concerned about its heavy reliance on fossil fuel and other non-renewable inputs, about its dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, about soil erosion and compaction and salinity and other resource depletion, and about destruction or impairment of natural ecosystems and accelerated loss of species and habitat.

I do not want to play down the food production challenge that makes many scientists and government officials worry about a transition to sustainable farming practices and the possibility that this will reduce yields.  Most observers agree that the world faces an unprecedented food production shortfall in the decades ahead.  Meeting the expected demand will be extremely difficult because it must be done with methods that do not destroy the capacity of the land to continue to produce enormous amounts of food.  And to do it indefinitely.  Exporting countries like Moldova and America must be prepared to help meet this demand.

Many agricultural professionals remain convinced that industrialized farming methods, with some biotechnology help, will enable agriculture to meet this challenge.  But there is growing consensus that this kind of agriculture is too dependent on capital, chemical, and nonrenewable energy inputs and is becoming unaffordable, inappropriate, and unsustainable in the long run.

Agenda 21, the global plan of action adopted at the Earth Summit, takes the position that sustainable agriculture is an imperative, not just an option.  A global transition to sustainable agriculture is called for in Chapter 14, which is entitled “Meeting Agriculture’s Needs Without Destroying the Land.”

United Nations Agency Responses

A total of 170 countries signed off on this document and, along with international agencies and institutions, accept this in principle.  But many do not see it as a mandate for immediate change.  They acknowledge that industrialized agriculture results in resource depletion, environmental damage, and other critical problems.  But they still hope many of its problems can be solved with new technology.  And they believe putting up with problems that do persist is not too high a price to pay for continuous increases in food production.

The prospects for change appear promising at the United Nations, where I do some of my work.  Some of you may feel, as many do, that what the United Nations system does in regard to agriculture is of little importance.

But I would submit that the international development and lending agencies, and the World Bank in particular, have played a significant role in spreading industrialized agriculture to many parts of the world where it clearly is inappropriate.  We feel it is important to put pressure on these agencies to persuade them to change their ways.  We feel they should be using their considerable financial leverage to promote agricultural systems that are more sustainable.  I am aware that World Bank teams are at work here in Moldova and I would urge you to pay close attention to what they recommend.

Several United Nations agencies seem to be making a genuine effort to change direction.  The Food and Agriculture Organization, which we refer to as the FAO, is a good example. It is launching an $80 million 5-year integrated pest management initiative in rice-growing areas of Asia.  It will be patterned on the highly successful IPM program in Indonesia, which emphasized the involvement of small farmers.  People at FAO are saying the approach used in Indonesia, if widely adopted, can cut pesticide use in Asia by 50 percent without any loss of production.  This should be of special interest to you since Moldova has one of the best IPM research institutes in this part of the world.

The United Nations Development Program also is trying to reshape its efforts.  It is supporting a sustainable agriculture network initiative in developing countries that emphasizes research and education and involves universities, non-government organizations, and others.  UNDP also has published a report on organic agriculture, the first on this subject by a UN agency, that concludes that organic farming is a viable food production option in developing countries.

Building Political Support

One thing sustainable agriculture supporters in most countries badly need is data and analysis that policymakers and scientists will accept as credible and persuasive.  This is needed to help convince those in the political system that sustainable agriculture can assure a reliable national food supply over the long run.  Most policymakers are cautious and like to play it safe.  Growing support for organic and sustainable agriculture in America, for example, has been enhanced by three important national reports.

The first, a 1980 government report entitled “Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming,” has had a significant policy impact.  One reason was that it was written by a team of senior U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists who had no previous knowledge of organic agriculture.  This favorable report helped make organic farming respectable in America.

The scientists who wrote the report concluded that organic farmers were using best management practices to control soil erosion, minimize water pollution, and conserve energy.  The report also said they had developed unique and innovative methods of organic recycling and pest control in their crop production sequences.

The second was a government report entitled “Improving Soils with Organic Wastes.”  It focused attention on agricultural wastes, especially manure, as a valuable production input.  It concluded that manure should be viewed as a valuable agricultural resource, not as a waste problem.

The third favorable report resulted from a 3-year study carried out by members of the National Academy of Sciences.  This report, entitled “Alternative Agriculture,” has been influential in building political support for a change in direction in American agriculture.  Several sustainable agriculture programs were adopted by the U.S. Congress the year after this report was published.  A new organic program also was approved.

However, little research money is available in America or anywhere else to study the problems and the potential of environmentally sound farming practices.  Too little is known about the costs and benefits and the production potential of these alternative systems.

Fortunately you have some answers based on research here in Moldova.  The 30-year trials at the Research Institute for Field Crops at Beltsi provide excellent data on crop rotations, fertilization, and tillage alternatives.  I am told that the results are highly favorable to sustainable agriculture.  These are some of the longest running and most extensive trials of this kind anywhere in the world.  Moldovan policymakers with questions about the productivity of sustainable agriculture will be reassured if they take a close look at the results of the world class scientific work going on at Beltsi.

There also is a growing body of evidence in other countries, including several studies in Europe, that show that well-managed organic farms do have yields comparable to those on industrialized farms. These good yields usually do not develop, however, until at least three years after a new organic system is begun.  Several studies comparing the economic returns of organic farms and those that use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides have concluded that returns on organic farms are comparable. They may have somewhat lower yields but they also have lower production costs.

Rationale for Policymakers

We also need to provide policymakers with the rationale for change and with criteria for sustainability that makes economic and political sense.  An economist in America has helped by identifying three schools of thought relating to agricultural sustainability.

The first is the “food sufficiency” or “productivity” view. Those holding this view, and that includes many in national governments, consider an agricultural system sustainable if it provides enough food to meet the demand.  It is a narrow view that ignores environmental considerations.

The second is the “stewardship” school, which views sustainability primarily as an ecological challenge.  Those holding this view are concerned about providing enough food indefinitely without destroying the resource base.

The third is the “community” view, which focuses on the impact of various agricultural systems on the vitality, social structure, and culture of rural life.  Industrialized agriculture in many parts of the world, including my own, has had a devastating effect on rural people and village life and culture.

I would not suggest that you chose only one of these three approaches.  I believe sound policy would include all of them. That would ensure that productivity is high, that soil and other natural resources are protected, and that rural people can have reliable incomes and a good life.

There are many who say we need to do more to define sustainable agriculture and to develop a vision for the future. I believe, however, that we have done enough in defining sustainable agriculture, in developing a vision for a global transition to sustainable agriculture, and in determining what the criteria for sustainability should be.  I believe it is time to move ahead on this.

It is generally agreed that we should strive for systems that 1) are in harmony with Nature and utilize Nature as the farmer’s partner; 2) are sun-powered and rely as much as possible on renewable energy; 3) avoid the use of toxic inputs; 4) conserve topsoil and avoid pollution runoff from farmland; 5) capture and recycle all organic wastes generated on the farm; 6) fully integrate livestock into farming systems; 7) protect farmland from being lost to non-farm users; 8) harness the biological life of the soil and maintain soil health, and 9) provide a good income for those who producer our food.

One of the greatest barriers to making these changes in most countries is attitude.  We need to help people change the way they think about agriculture and the impact it has on the soil and the environment.  Boris Boinchin of the Field Crops Institute at Beltsi has described the process of thinking and attitude that many policymakers, scientists, and farmers go through:

At first they say sustainable agriculture is crazy, that it won’t work.  A little later they will say that there may be some features of sustainable agriculture that could be useful. Finally, after seeing more evidence, they will say “I have been thinking that way all along.” Our challenge is to help move policymakers, scientists, and farmers through this process step by step.


Before closing I want to mention one argument for sustainable agriculture that applies especially to an exporting countries like Moldova.  Consumers in Western Europe, America, and places like Japan are concerned about pesticide residues in particular and food safety in general.  Mothers with young children in particular want organic food if they can find it and if it is not priced too high.  I would urge you to consider a “clean and green” strategy for Moldovan farm exports.  This would require development and adoption of organic standards.  Producing food with sustainable agriculture methods will, without question, make Moldovan agricultural exports more competitive in world markets.

Let me conclude by saying that I think Moldova is an agricultural jewel that may need a little polishing but has enormous potential to sparkle in the future.  Your fertile soil is a national treasure that you should protect in the same way you would protect crown jewels.  Do not be led astray by those who say you can continue to use chemical fertilizers and pesticides and plow up the steep slopes indefinitely without soil loss and deterioration.  There is ample evidence now in other parts of the world, including my own country, that shows this will happen.

I urge you to examine all the evidence dealing with alternative approaches to food production as you help set the new direction for Moldovan agriculture.  I believe you will find the case for sustainable agriculture is convincing.  Those of us involved in the World Sustainable Agriculture Association, VOCA, and similar organizations want you and your country to succeed. We offer encouragement and a hand of friendship and we wish you the best in all your efforts.