Research and technology Knowledge

Posted June 1996

Sustaining small farm enterprises

Science and technology for sustainable development, Part 5


Part 1
Forest management and conservation

Part 2
Land and water development

Part 3
Protecting fisheries resources

Part 4
Plant protection and pesticides

Part 5
Sustaining small farm enterprises

Part 6
Post-harvest technology and food quality

Part 7

Part 8
Plant production

Agricultural development must seek to strike a balance between conservation of natural resources at national and local levels and meeting the needs of the country and the farming families, particularly over the short to medium term.

Farming systems

The key to sustainable development in low-resource areas is better management of farm production systems to minimize risks and to enable the farm household to withstand shocks and stress. In areas with adequate resources and a high potential for agricultural production, intensive crop production can generally be sustained using existing technologies so long as the soil's regenerative capacity is not exceeded.

For most developing countries, food security and alleviation of rural poverty will depend on sustainable production in the high-potential areas, on high-quality, naturally flooded or irrigated land. It is essential to maintain and increase staple food production on such land to feed the rural and urban poor. Natural resource management must also be improved in areas contiguous to irrigated river basins and in the highly populated intensive farming systems that they support.

Optimal production on land of high agricultural potential usually requires a steady supply of relatively expensive inputs, such as fuel, mineral fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Although sustainability and equity might be served by a shift on such land to mixed farming systems that require a lower level of external inputs, criteria of profitability even for small-scale producers and of ability to satisfy a growing demand might not be met. Thus any such change in farming system would have to be gradual. Available land with high potential for agricultural production is already cultivated, in some cases beyond its natural regenerative capacity and the financial capacity of the farmer to assist regeneration with fertilizer and other inputs. Increasingly, farmers are obliged to grow crops and livestock on land lacking one or more of the essential components for sustainable production.

Essential elements in resource-poor areas are economic and social incentives, community management of local projects, sound land-use planning that integrates use of forests and wooded areas, and improved farming systems that prevent or reverse land degradation. A systems approach is especially needed in these more marginal areas to increase simultaneously the production of food, livestock feed and household fuel through closer integration of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, including aquaculture.

FAO has supported studies of integrated crop and livestock farming systems in circumstances of pastoralism, shifting cultivation and plantation cropping. Such studies aim at intensified livestock production coupled (when nomadic pastoralists are being settled) with increased fodder as well as crop production. The provision of animal feed is also promoted, for example through a research network on utilization of crop residues and agro-industrial products in West Africa.

FAO places special importance on efficient operation of small farms in ways that are sustainable with available material and labour resources, that raise farm output, and that increase farm and farm-family income. On-site studies are made in cooperation with national institutions to characterize farm-household systems that are common in an area. Analysis of constraints on production efficiency or expansion is then used to identify feasible improvements which are tested and adapted in representative farming systems. Appropriate improvements are made available, along with training and guidance in farming system development, for extension by national or local staff of agricultural ministries or institutes.

Through the introduction and support of a wide range of engineering technologies FAO seeks to improve production, reduce the risks of failure, or alleviate drudgery for farm families, especially for women in developing countries. Governments, aid agencies and end-users are encouraged to select technology appropriate to the farming system in which it will be used.


Trees and shrubs serve several useful purposes, particularly in small-scale agriculture. In areas where the risk of erosion is high, they conserve and replenish the productive capacity of the soil. When integrated with production of crops and livestock in arid and semi-arid regions, trees can provide shade, fodder, fuelwood and numerous useful products. For example, in the Far East, farmers practising shifting cultivation have been shown how to plant exotic and improved local tree and bush species to provide forage, increasing livestock production as well as protecting the soil.

An FAO project in Eastern Africa in seeking ways to solve the problems of shifting cultivation by introducing proven conservation techniques in four pilot villages with differing socioeconomic and ecological conditions. Techniques include cultivation of industrial crops, production of fruits and legumes, establishing communal forests for fuelwood and timber, and reforestation of steep, denuded or eroding slopes.

The importance of integrating tree growing in the various farming systems is often not recognized by policy-makers. Agroforestry should not be seen as a separate and isolated topic. Degraded lands can be rehabilitated, watershed management improved and sustainable farming systems made possible through agroforestry.

A promising agroforestry technique is alley cropping, in which crop plants occupy lanes 2 to 3 metres wide between lines of trees or shrubs-preferably leguminous, nitrogen-fixing species. When small ruminants are also part of the system, usually on a small scale, the technique is termed alley farming. In more arid areas, certain Acacia species may be the main source of fodder for animal production during the annual dry season and especially during extended droughts.


Energy is an indispensable input in agriculture. Much of the energy for plant production comes from the sun, as a gift for photosynthesis. But other inputs depend on different energy sources which are converted into fertilizers, weed killers, pesticides and aids to crop production and protection.

Agriculture is an important user of energy in rural areas. The energy inputs required by rural populations, however, are still in deficit in most developing countries. There are needs for heating, electricity or mechanical power for cooking food, transportation and other local services. More energy is needed but in many cases per caput energy consumption has declined with population growth,as a result of shortage of fuelwood supplies, transport problems and high costs.

Fuelwood accounts for about 60 percent of the total energy consumption in Africa. About 30 developing countries depend on it for over two-thirds of their energy. Official statistics give an inadequate picture because national energy balances normally consider only the 'formal' demand for energy, and not the actual energy requirements of the rural population. The trend towards greater use of wood as fuel to meet urban needs must also be taken into account.

FAO's largest programme on renewable sources of energy concentrates on solving the problems of fuelwood-deficit areas. Plant production for fuelwood is a major element in some of its integrated rural development projects in Africa.

Modern technologies are available to generate energy in various forms, but they need to be adapted to local needs and possibilities. Biogas production, through anaerobic digestion of organic wastes and residues, is expanding in many developing countries. FAO supports the greater diffusion of the technology through national projects for both small and larger scale systems. Solar and wind energies are used for cooking, water heating, water pumping, solar greenhouses and refrigeration. However, their efficiency and reliability need to be improved and their costs reduced if they are to be widely used. FAO emphasizes the need to develop energy policies for rural development and to promote new and renewable sources of energy that meet the requirements of rural populations in developing countries.

Sustainable agriculture and rural development

Striking a balance between present needs for food, fuel and fibre, and the future requirements for a productive and healthy natural resources base is a major challenge facing agriculture today. The central principle of sustainable development is that the welfare of future generations should not be compromised by development and consumption patterns of the present generation.

FAO has defined sustainable development as "the management and conservation of the natural resource base, and the orientation of technological and institutional change in such a manner as to ensure the attainment and continued satisfaction of human needs for present and future generations. Such sustainable development (in the agriculture, forestry and fisheries sectors) conserves land, water, plant and animal genetic resources, is environmentally non-degrading, technically appropriate, economically viable and socially acceptable."

The FAO/Netherlands Conference on Agriculture and the Environment (held in s'-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands, 15-19 April 1991) helped to define a global strategy for sustainable agriculture and rural development (SARD). Apart from government institutions, the Conference included NGOs concerned with environmental protection and alternative forms of agriculture and rural development, farmer organizations, women's associations, consumer unions, pesticide and fertilizer industries and development cooperation agencies. The outcome, the den Bosch Declaration and Agenda for Action, reflects a consensus reached between experts from countries at different stages of development and a variety of backgrounds. This common approach has led to the development by FAO of an International Cooperative Programme Framework for Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development (ICPF/SARD) as a means of working towards three essential goals:

This initiative was reinforced at the UN Conference on Environment and Development (Rio de Janeiro, June 1992), at which 178 member governments agreed on a comprehensive programme of sustainable development called Agenda 21. Many of its 115 programme areas are relevant to FAO, including Chapter 35, "Science for sustainable development".

The chapter on sustainable agriculture and rural development has 13 programme areas, of which the first 11 are contained in the den Bosch Agenda for Action, endorsed by the FAO Council and Conference. Aspects of biodiversity related to food and agriculture are in the two programme areas dealing with plant and animal genetic resources.

The four programme areas related to combating desertification draw heavily on the recommendations emerging from FAO's Tenth World Forestry Congress. Most of the proposed resources would be used for forest management, conservation and plantation ("greening").

The chapter on oceans, coastal areas and living marine resources deals with integrated coastal zone management, environmental protection, sustainable use and conservation of living resources of the high seas and within national jurisdiction, and sustainable development of small islands. In addition to the main chapters, other areas of Agenda 21 are of interest to the agriculture, forestry and fisheries sectors, including protection of the atmosphere, conservation of biological diversity, environmentally sound management of bio-technology and toxic chemicals.

To assist the UN Secretary-General in the UNCED follow up, a small inter-agency Task Force was set up in April 1992 under the chairmanship of the Director-General of FAO with members composed of the executive heads of Unesco, WHO, WMO, UNDP, UNEP and the World Bank. The Task Force considered four main points:

These recommendations were adopted by the UN General Assembly at the end of 1992 for implementation starting in 1993.

Clearly, the implications of Agenda 21 for science and technology pose enormous challenges for the agriculture sector. There is need to identify indicators, develop technology options based on population-supporting capacity and carry out technology assessment and transfer studies. While not all of this is new, many existing programmes will have to be reinforced to meet a variety of environmental, social and economic goals.

FAO's activities in this field include screening technologies and research to generate or adapt new ones and verify their practicality for farmers. Under a cooperative programme with UNEP, FAO has for many years executed and promoted projects on genetic resources, pest management, marine resources, wildlife and protected areas, and human, livestock and environmental health. FAO also cooperates with the World Conservation Union (IUCN) on ecosystem conservation and with Unesco in its "Man and the Biosphere" programme.

SD Homepage Back to Top FAO Homepage