By Roger Blobaum, World Sustainable Agriculture Association. October 1995
The main focus of this paper is a review of progress being made in a transition to more environmentally sound farming methods in several important agricultural countries outside of Europe. It reports on agricultural trends and changes underway in the United States, Canada, Australia, China, and Japan. These countries, like those in Central and Eastern Europe, developed highly industrialized production systems over the last few decades and now are moving, slowly but surely, in a more environmentally friendly direction.
This paper also includes a discussion of new trends and attitudes and of changing policies and model projects and programs that may be adaptable to situations in this region. It also discusses political problems and challenges related to a transition to sustainable agriculture.
The introductory section of this paper attempts to provide a global perspective by reviewing some important international developments related to agricultural sustainability. This includes information on how these developments appear to be influencing agricultural changes now underway in Hungary and elsewhere in this region.
Agriculture in Hungary, and throughout this region, is undergoing a difficult and economically painful transition in terms of both technology and structure. There is growing consensus here, as in America and many other countries where agriculture is a strong sector, that intensive technology-driven farming practices adopted since World War II are causing far too much environmental damage and must be greatly modified or even abandoned.
There appears to be wide acceptance throughout this region on the need to make a transition to smaller, privately-held farms and to more environmentally sound practices and to have this change take place simultaneously with farmland privatization. The conditions appear to be right for making a new beginning in agriculture in terms of structure and production methods and in the level and type of government involvement in the farming sector. This would appear to be an historic agricultural moment for countries like Hungary.
I also am aware that the breakup of Hungary’s system of cooperatives and state farms, regarded as the most efficient and productive in Central and Eastern Europe, has brought on an unprecedented economic crisis. This shift also has been made much more difficult by drought, loss of export markets, unaffordable energy and farm chemical prices, land tenure fragmentation, a sharp drop in consumer buying power, a financial liquidity crisis, and the collapse of state subsidies. When people on the land are fighting to survive, concepts like sustainable agriculture have little meaning or appeal and appear unrealistic at best.
This period of upheaval and change poses a continuing dilemma for policymakers. What kind of incentives will it take to carry out this transition and what can governments afford to do? How can it be done in a way that will enable the agricultural sector to get back on its feet economically and regain access to export markets? How long will it take to restore Hungary’s longstanding role as the granary for this part of the world? I have had the opportunity to review some of the planning documents relating to prospects for agricultural and environmental policy integration in Hungary and for the adoption of environmentally friendly technologies. Some good work is being done.
The difficult agricultural transition underway in Central and Eastern Europe is part of something much bigger. A global transition to sustainable agriculture is finally beginning and the Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero in Brazil three years ago was a turning point. I am cautiously optimistic about small changes being adopted by most 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 by more than 170 nations 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 profitable and productive and how long will it take.
The Earth Summit provided a world platform for discussing agriculture’s problems. It showed that a growing number of people around the world, including many agricultural scientists and policymakers, are concerned about agriculture’s long-term sustainability. They have expressed concern about its heavy reliance on fossil fuel and other nonrenewable inputs, about its dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, about soil erosion and compaction and salinity and other resource base depletion, and about destruction or impairment of natural ecosystems and accelerated loss of species and habitat.
Although these concerns are widely shared, questions about what to do about them are largely unresolved. The threat of an unprecedented food production shortfall in the decades ahead remains a sobering prospect. Meeting 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 indefinitely. Many agricultural professionals remain convinced that industrialized farming methods, with some biotechnology enhancement, will enable agriculture to meet this challenge. But there is growing consensus that this kind of agriculture has become far too dependent on capital, chemical, and nonrenewable energy inputs and will be unaffordable, inappropriate, and unsustainable in the long run.
Agenda 21 the global plan of action for the next century adopted at the Earth Summit, takes the position that sustainable agriculture is an imperative, not 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.” Although many of the 170 countries that signed off on Agenda 21 do not see it as a mandate for immediate or sweeping change, they have accepted it in principle and are committed to gradual change in a new direction.
It is important to note that Hungary has established a commission on sustainable development and is submitting annual reports to the Commission on Sustainable Development, the United Nations agency responsible for Agenda 21 implementation. A Ministry of Agriculture document entitled “Prospects for Agricultural and Environmental Policy Integration in Hungary,” concludes that the development and adaptation of new environmentally sound agricultural technologies are essential to meet dual goals of environmental protection and efficient agricultural production.
It is significant that Hungary was one of only four countries invited to formally present a country plan for integrated land management and sustainable agriculture to the Commission on Sustainable Development at a general session at the United Nations last April. This model plan, which emphasizes the integration of production goals with the long-term protection of land resources, was prepared by the Ministry of Agriculture’s Agro-Environmental Division.
Industrialized agriculture, the kind that has dominated this region and many other parts of the world, no longer commands unquestioned support from policymakers, agricultural professionals, or the general public. Approaches referred to initially as alternative agriculture, and more recently as sustainable agriculture, are beginning to attract global recognition and acceptance. They are known in various parts of the world as ‘low impact”, “organic”, ‘low input”, “regenerative”, “biological”, “ecological”, “agroecological”, “permaculture”, “biological recycling”, “biodynamic”, and “nature” farming. I have heard this kind of agriculture referred to in this region as “balanced” farming and “reasonable” farming. Some of these approaches are more sustainable than others. But I believe all of them have potential as models of the kind of agriculture that is appropriate for the future.
Although sustainable agriculture is a widely accepted term, it is much easier to describe than to define. One researcher has identified more than 60 different definitions. Most policymakers are unconcerned about definitions and prefer instead to describe it as an approach or a concept. Some see it as a set of prescribed practices. But I believe it is best seen as an agricultural goal or destination. It is site specific and relies heavily on the experience and wisdom of farmers and their ability to adapt practices to local soil, weather, and other conditions. It uses science to enhance traditional farmer knowledge rather than to replace it. It is information intensive, requires good management, and involves a partnership with Nature rather than an attempt to manipulate or dominate or subdue it.
There is consensus on the broad principles of agricultural sustainability. Meadows and others suggest in “Beyond the Limits” that agriculture, in order to be sustainable, must meet five broad criteria. Renewable resources must not be used at a rate greater than they can be regenerated. Nonrenewable resources must not be used at a rate greater than substitute resources can be developed. Agricultural waste and pollutants must not be produced at a rate greater than the natural environment can assimilate them. The system must provide for intergenerational Equity. And agriculture must provide support for enough people on the land to care for and preserve its resource base.
Most of the countries covered in this report have adopted public policies and taken program initiatives designed to encourage the adoption of sustainable agriculture practices.
Although the United States began initiating a series of sustainable agriculture initiatives ten years ago, only one of them has ever had more than $10 million a year in funding and few farmers are involved. Included is a research and education program that provides grants for farmer-involved research and education, a program that funds projects to train extension agents in sustainable agriculture concepts and practices, a national sustainable agriculture information service, a program that funds studies of innovative marketing systems, a program that is developing national organic standards, and a program that provides cost share assistance to farmers who adopt alternative farming practices.
In China, where agriculture has become one of the world’s largest users of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, a program was launched in the mid-1980s with more than 900 ecological agriculture demonstration sites. Included are 500 eco-agricultural villages and farms, more than 300 eco-agricultural townships, and about 100 eco-agricultural counties. This program, which includes a renewable energy component, is being supplemented by the development on state farms of 260,000 hectares of sustainable agriculture demonstrations and several city-sponsored rural-urban ecological agriculture projects. These demonstrations are part of a fast-growing national food and farming initiative led by the China Green Food Demonstration Center in the Ministry of Agriculture.
In Japan the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries established an Office for Sustainable Agriculture Task Force to promote plans designed to improve and maintain agriculture’s role in preserving the environment, promote development and extension of sustainable farming methods, and promote recycling in the agricultural sector. A total of $23 minion was allocated for sustainable agriculture, including $2 million for organic farming. This initiative also provides for case studies of sustainable agriculture practices in local areas and requires both the national and prefectural governments to provide low-cost loans to farmers who practice sustainable agriculture or organic farming. In Hokkaido Prefecture in far north Japan “clean agriculture” initiatives have been implemented by 131 of 210 local governments.
In Australia, where land degradation is a serious problem, the government supports a community-based land care movement that now involves 2,000 local groups and approximately one third of the country’s farming communities. This attempt to involve the public in the development of sustainable agriculture and environmentally sound land use systems has a 10-year government funding commitment. The government also supports a growing organic food industry and the development of organic standards.
NEW TRENDS AND INITIATIVES
Although government support of sustainable agriculture projects and models is limited in most agricultural countries dominated by industrialized farming systems, a growing number are being developed and implemented without government involvement or assistance. These initiatives by nonprofit organizations and institutions involved in sustainable agriculture help mobilize public support for new and innovative trends and approaches. These are some important emerging trends and developments:
Urban Agriculture. Research carried out by the Urban Agriculture Network with support from the United Nations Development Program has documented the enormous potential for food production of food with environmentally sound methods in urban areas. The Network studies show that farmers are meeting 85 percent of the urban demand for vegetables and more than half the demand for meat and poultry in and around 18 of China’s largest cities. It is estimated that 30 percent of all the food produced in Russia comes from dachas, the privately-held fruit and vegetable plots located in cities and nearby areas. Several industrial countries, including Canada, are preparing green plans that include provisions for the support of urban farmers.
Consumer-Supported Agriculture. This concept, first developed in Europe, provides a direct marketing link between farmers and consumers. Individual farms, known as CSAs, provide a group of consumers with a diverse supply of fresh, in-season, organic produce. The shareholders usually pay a portion of the production expenses at the beginning of the season to provide the farmer with operating cash. In return they receive weekly shares in the harvest. More than 500 CSAs are operating in the United States, many serving 100 urban families or more, and more than 1,000 consumer-producer groups are operating in Japan. These arrangements, promoted by the Japan Organic Agriculture Association and referred to as “teikei,” stress face-to-face contact and direct communication between consumers and farmers.
Biological Pest Management. The United States has set an official goal of putting 75 percent of all cropland under Integrated Pest Management (IPM) by the year 2000. Traditional IPM, which is practiced in most parts of the world, relies primarily on the use of nonchemical pest management methods and allows chemical pesticides to be used only as a last resort. Proponents of environmentally sound agriculture, however, are pushing biological pest controls that rely heavily on beneficial insects, mating disruption, and similar natural methods to fight insect pests.
Green Payments. Serious consideration was given in the United States this year to establishment of government-funded green support programs that would make environmental protection, rather than supply management based on idled land, the principle basis for farm income support. The rewardable practices considered included adoption of crop rotations that promote soil health and quality and reduce the need for farm chemicals, that retire land for environmental benefit or restore cultivated land to its previous condition as wetlands or wildlife habitat, and that encourage environmentally sound manure storage and handling. These proposals, aimed at wide adoption of environmentally beneficial practices that may not be cost effective for farmers, failed to survive a wave of farm program cutbacks. Green payments are used in several European countries to encourage conversion of farms to organic methods.
On-Farm Research. Several recent surveys have documented farmer-to-farmer transfer of sustainable agriculture information and farmer preference for small-scale, crop-specific, and problem-specific research conducted on working farms. Several sources of small grants have become available for farmer-initiated research, which is disseminated through farm tours, field days, and workshops. The Leopold Center at Iowa State University and the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in Wisconsin have pioneered direct farmer involvement in joint projects with university-based researchers. Their work shows that farmers have a high regard for indigenous knowledge and want to be involved in the choice of problems to be studied, the approach to be tried, and the dissemination of results.
Farmer-to-Farmer Education. There is growing interest in most industrialized countries in development of farmer-to-farmer transfer of sustainable agriculture information through farm tours and field days, peer training, and exchange visits. Extension agents and others respond to the growing demand for this participatory learning approach by serving as meeting convenors and facilitators. The spread of information needed for the expansion of organic agriculture in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s relied almost entirely on farmer-organized meetings, farm visits, and farmer-to-farmer information exchange.
Eco-Labeling. Consumers concerned about food safety and environmental protection have created demand in the marketplace for a variety of “green” labels that provide information about the environmental impact of food and other production systems. Both governments and nongovernmental organizations have developed “eco-labels” that enable consumers to “vote” for products certified as grown or produced under environmentally friendly conditions. A recent United Nations Conference on Trade and Development study found 212 distinct produce categories for which eco-labels are now provided. The certified organic label, for example, is a consumer-recognized claim that the labeled food was produced in compliance with organic standards and that this claim was third-party verified.
Whole Farm Planning. Farm plans that include provisions for biological pest control, crop rotation, erosion control, wildlife habitat, manure management, and other elements have been pioneered by organic farmers. Preparation of these plans requires a farmer to think through the environmentally-sound practices involved and to establish timelines for continuous improvement. This approach builds on the soil and water conservation plans that have been required to gain eligibility for government-provided technical assistance and cost share payments in the United States. Sustainable agriculture proponents also are demonstrating plans that cover entire watersheds, involve large numbers of farmers, and that are aimed at curbing non-point pollution of waterways.
Resource Accounting. Placing a monetary value on the cost of contamination or depletion or depletion of aquifers, soil acidity and salinity and loss of organic matter, and the public costs of eroded soil and other pollutants originating on farms is gaining support. These externalities are not accounted for in economic studies comparing the costs and benefits of conventional and organic or sustainable farming systems. Recent studies by the World Resources Institute show that organic and sustainable agriculture systems are economically superior when these costs are identified and internalized. There is growing support in industrialized countries for adjusting national income accounts to reflect the depreciation of natural assets and the direct costs of environmental degradation.
Rotational Grazing One of the fastest-growing livestock-related alternatives in the United States is rotational grazing, an approach with special appeal to dairy farmers seeking ways to abandon labor-intensive feeding systems and avoid the high costs of harvesting and delivering field-chopped grass and forage to cattle in lots. Pasture areas are divided into paddocks and grazing animals are moved from one to another every day or so to harvest fresh grass and forage. Rotating animals from paddock to paddock gives the pasture time to regenerate and distributes manure on the fields at the same time.
One thing sustainable agriculture advocates in most countries badly need is data and analysis that policymakers and scientists will accept as credible and persuasive. Many remember food shortages that developed during World War II when modern technology was not yet available. Most are extremely cautious about any changes that could lower yields and, for political reasons, tend to oppose them. There is a clear need for new and reassuring information about sustainable agriculture’s potential. Growing support for organic and sustainable agriculture in America, for example, is due in large part to three important national reports prepared by mainstream scientists.
The first, a 1980 government report entitled “Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming,” had a significant impact because it was prepared by a team of senior U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists with no previous knowledge of organic agriculture. This report described practices used by successful organic farmers and helped make organic farming respectable in America. The second, a government report entitled “Improving Soils with Organic Wastes,” focused attention on full utilization of manure and other agricultural wastes as a production input. The third was a report on a 3-year study carried out by members of the National Academy of Sciences. This report, entitled “Alternative Agriculture,” has been influential in mobilizing political support for a change in direction in American agriculture. Most of sustainable agriculture initiatives I mentioned earlier were approved by Congress the year after this report was published.
Other reports dealing with the costs and benefits and the yield potential of organic and sustainable agriculture are still being issued in other parts of the world. Several in Western Europe, for example, concluded that well-managed organic farms have yields comparable to those under conventional management. These good yields usually do not develop, however, until at least three years after a new organic system has been established. Several other 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.
We also need to challenge those who contend we cannot feed the world without chemical-intensive “high-yield” agriculture. Unfortunately some “high-yield” proponents present this approach in overly simplistic “either-or” terms. They suggest we must rely entirely on synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and on high-energy farming in land-intensive crop production systems to protect wildlife and natural ecosystems and to avoid a new world food crisis. This position is based on the assumption that alternatives to chemical-intensive farming necessarily require more land to produce the same amount of food and that the environmental benefits of limiting land used for crop production outweigh the environmental costs of chemical-intensive systems.
A report issued last month by the highly respected Henry A. Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture cites a series of scientific studies that successfully challenge the claim that chemically-based land-intensive agriculture systems guarantee high productivity or that they are able to sustain high yields. The report, entitled “Intensive Agriculture and Environmental Quality: Examining the Newest Agricultural Myth,” concluded that the key to production in the next century is adoption of agricultural systems that combine high yield with sustainability.
“Widespread public acceptance of this myth, in light of the evidence against its validity, can preclude investment in research and development on environmentally friendly alternatives to chemically-based production and discourage agricultural businesses from making strategic decisions about products and services likely to be demanded by future farmers,” the report states. “Ultimately this myth could impede progress towards achievement of an agricultural system that will feed a growing world popualtion without endangering the natural environment.”
We also need to provide policymakers with the rationale for change and with criteria for sustainability that makes economic and political sense. An American economist has provided some help by identifying and describing three schools of thought relating to agricultural sustainability.
The first is the ‘food sufficiency” or “productivity” view. Those holding this view consider an agricultural system sustainable if it provides enough food to meet consumer demand. This 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 agriculture’s natural 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 countries, including my own, has had a devastating impact on rural economies and on rural community life and culture.
Although political leaders tend to favor the ‘food sufficiency” view, I believe sound national policy must encompass all three. That will help ensure that productivity is high, that soil and other natural resources are protected, and that farmers and other rural people are able to maintain viable communities and preserve rural culture.
It is important to acknowledge that alternative agriculture challenges strongly-held views of most scientists and other agricultural professionals and that one of the main barriers to wide adoption of these environmentally friendly approaches is attitude. We need to do more to help people change the way they think about agriculture.
Boris Boinchin, the deputy director of the Field Crops Institute in Moldova and a strong sustainable agriculture proponent, has described the change in attitude experienced by many policymakers, scientists, and farmers. At first, he reports, they say sustainable agriculture is crazy and that it won’t work. A little later they say 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 guide policymakers, scientists, and farmers through this process.
I want to close with the question posed in a recent article in Science Magazine, a prestigious and peer-reviewed publication widely circulated in the American scientific community. The question posed was this: “Can sustainable agriculture win the battle of the bottom line? Can a greener agriculture ever be profitable? Or are its supporters asking farmers to face economic ruin for the greater good of society?” Although one answer suggested was that we really don’t have defensible answers to these questions, I believe we now have sufficient evidence to conclude that a green agriculture can be profitable.
The Science article concludes with an observation that seems to describe where we are in the transition to sustainable agriculture in America. It appears to describe the situation in many other countries as well:
“Relatively few farmers are likely to adopt the entire sustainable agriculture package any time soon. But as research expands the choices of alternative techniques and, perhaps more important, as farmers grow comfortable with what were once considered unorthodox approaches to farming, mainstream agriculture seems certain to continue its piece-by-piece adoption of sustainable methods.”
It is important to know you are not alone in shaping a transition to a more sustainable agriculture system. I would urge you to examine all the evidence dealing with these alternative approaches as you adopt new policies, set new research priorities, and provide the scientific input needed to support this new and emerging farming approach in Hungary and throughout Central and Eastern Europe. Those of us involved in American agriculture, and in working on behalf of a global transition to sustainable agriculture, want you to succeed and wish you well in this important effort.