Chapter 12: Laying the technological foundation for sustained agricultural development

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12.1 Introduction
12.2 Chaning perceptions of technological development requirments in developing countries
12.3 Changing opportunities in the developed countries
12.4 Population pressure and technological change
12.5 The technological challenges of agricultural growth
12.6 A research agenda for a sustainable future

12.1 Introduction

In recent years, contrasting views have been expressed regarding the environmental soundness or appropriateness of low or high external input technology paths in responding to many of the pressures outlined in Chapter 11. One issue is clear: increasing agricultural production depends on replacing most of the soil nutrients removed in the harvesting of crops, otherwise nutrient mining will take place and production will not be sustainable. Low external input systems will require large inputs of labour (which are not always available) and high external input systems will need considerable inputs of fossil fuel (i.e. non-renewable) energy. Although the use of mineral fertilizers will continue to grow, it cannot, in many situations, provide all of the inputs necessary to maintain soil fertility and must be used with organic manures and other biological inputs as part of an integrated plant nutrition system. It is also noted that low external input systems are not necessarily less polluting than high input ones. Badly timed applications of manure, for example, can be a more serious source of groundwater and surface water contamination than appropriate amounts of mineral fertilizers. Requirements therefore are not just technological, but also include manpower training and regulatory instruments.

There is growing acceptance that what is required is a balanced integration of the two systems. A number of the underlying forces are particularly significant in that they stem from changing perceptions as to priorities and pathways for technological development in the developing countries, and changing opportunities in developed countries. These aspects will be considered in the next three sections. The penultimate section (Section 12.5) will discuss the technological responses required to achieve the growth in agricultural production projected in this study with the minimum risk to the environment. The final section will briefly assess the needs and opportunities for laying the technological foundation for sustainable agricultural development beyond the year 2010.

This emphasis on technology is not intended to suggest that a new technological pathway is sufficient in itself. There is a wide range of policy and institutional measures required to provide the incentives needed for farmers, forest users and fishermen to adopt sustainable technological and resource management practices. These other measures are the subject of Chapter 13.

12.2 Chaning perceptions of technological development requirments in developing countries

early efforts to support agricultural development in the developing countries were heavily based on transferring technologies and management practices of the developed countries for a narrow range of crops in areas with favourable soil and agroclimatic conditions. This had a number of positive benefits but also some undesirable consequences. On the positive side, and as noted in Chapter 2, agricultural growth in the developing countries exceeded that of population, with the exception of sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover, a number of countries have been able to raise agricultural export earnings and local incomes derived from them without sacrificing domestic food production. This has been achieved through major technological improvements in the high potential areas, though in some instances with the environmental penalties described in Chapter 11. Notable achievements include the uptake of high yielding wheat and rice varieties in Asia and Latin America and the increase of sugar yields in some countries as well as the rapid growth of the palm oil sector. There is no reason to believe that these benefits cannot be maintained in the medium term while production is shifted on to a more sustainable development path.

The main undesirable consequences were as follows.

1. Traditional mixed cropping and interplanting practices with high resilience to weather fluctuations and pest attacks were commonly discouraged and replaced by less stable monocropping and row planting. It is now accepted that this shift was undesirable in some situations and deleterious in others for both short-term household food security and long-term sustainability in the more marginal environments.

2. The technological needs of the arid and semi-arid areas were neglected, except where the lack of water could be overcome through formal irrigation. 3. Plant breeding focused on cash crops and on a few major staples, and until recently generally neglected grains like millet, roots and tubers, and most legumes. Moreover, earlier breeding objectives were focused on maximizing yields rather than stabilizing them, which is a primary concern of many farmers. And in some cases, for example for sorghum and millet, by aiming for higher yields breeders were implicitly selecting for varieties with long growth cycles, which exposed the farmer to greater risks of crop failure in areas where the length of growing period is critical.

4. Tillage systems were centred on conventional ploughing, which is not well suited to some of the fragile soils of the developing countries, where the emphasis should have been on minimal tillage systems.

5. Soil nutrient replacement was dominated by mineral fertilizer use rather than the development of integrated plant nutrition systems.

6. Soil conservation techniques were drawn up around engineering and not biological approaches to soil stabilization, and with erosion control rather than soil moisture management as the primary objective.

These undesirable consequences are now broadly recognized, and are increasingly addressed by research and extension systems (CGIAR, 1992). As yet, however, this recognition has not resulted in a major shift in national and international research priorities, and where it has, the main technological and institutional findings are unlikely to be applied widely in the short to medium term. Consequently the production projections of this study are based on the assumption that the prevailing technological path will be the dominant one for the next 15 to 20 years, particularly in the high potential areas, but that there will be a gradual shift in researching technologies for the more marginal areas. Low acceptance rates for some of the research stemming from the 'Western' style approach to agricultural development was commonly ascribed to the lack of integration of peasant farmers into the market economy, and their low susceptibility to economic incentives. Low acceptance rates were seldom attributed to the deficiencies outlined above or to the inappropriateness of the technologies to farmers' needs. A number of changes, however, have taken place or are under way, regarding the manner in which technological needs are identified and research is conducted, which should make the production levels projected for 2010 more achievable and sustainable.

There are three notable changes concerning the identification of farmers' needs. First, widespread acceptance now of the earlier contention that peasant farmers are profit maximizers provided the technologies are not too risky, and are profitable very early in the adoption process. Both aspects have been neglected in the design and evaluation of many technologies. Second, some progress has been made in understanding the links between population pressure on resources and the development and adoption of technologies, for example, the extent to which the adoption by farmers of land-augmenting, yield-enhancing technologies depends on their access to land and market incentives (see, for example, Pingali and Binswanger, 1984; Lele and Stone, 1989; Tiffen et al., 1993). A later section considers this aspect in more detail. Third, growing recognition that the decision process of farmers is weighted more by the profitability of technologies than by their environmental friendliness (Bebbington et al., 1993).

Similarly there are three important changes regarding the conduct of research. First, there is the emphasis on farming systems research with the greater involvement of farmers in the decision process, which helps to place commodity research in a more meaningful production context. Second, the introduction of on-farm client-oriented research or on-farm research, which is an approach designed to meet the needs of resource-poor farmers, and complements as well as depends on, experiment station research. Finally, the "rediscovery" of indigenous technical knowledge, with growing acceptance of the need to build on existing technologies which have been selected and refined by farmers in harmony with their own sociological and ecological conditions (Altieri, 1987; Chambers et al., 1989), but with the understanding that they are not sufficient in themselves (Richards, 1990; Bebbington et al., 1993). The use of the velvet bean as soil cover and green manure in communities in Honduras is an example of such participatory research and development (Bunch, 1990).

12.3 Changing opportunities in the developed countries

The rise in public willingness to pay for a better environment

Although a better environment which is achieved through cleaner technologies and sustainable agricultural practices may be cost saving in the long term, there are commonly short-term economic penalties through higher production costs, restrictions on resource use, and public expenditure financed through taxes. Thus organically grown foods cost 10 to 20 percent more than the "conventional" product, and calls for restrictions on resource use in the United States to promote sustainable timber extraction and protect the habitat of the spotted owl contributed to the increase in US timber prices in early 1993. Consequently, public policy changes towards sustainable technologies and practices are dependent on the willingness of consumers and the public sector to pay these additional costs. This willingness has been growing since the early 1970s, and can be expected to continue to grow, albeit with some short term declines during periods of economic uncertainty.

Environmentally oriented shifts in technology

These shifts are driven by three forces: first, the public pressures discussed above; second, in particular in the European Community (EC), the need to address the surplus production problem; third, scientific and technological progress itself. The first and second forces, for example, are combining in the EC to restrict the use of mineral and organic fertilizers in sensitive watersheds, and to ensure more sustainable land management practices. They may ultimately result in significant amounts of agricultural land being withdrawn from cultivation and placed under pastures, forests or leisure uses.

The third force, the growth in scientific knowledge and technological progress, expresses itself in two particular ways. Firstly, in the greater understanding of the risks to human and ecosystem health of certain practices. As an example, the discovery of the link between the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and ozone damage and the discovery of the ozone hole over the Antarctic led rapidly to the Vienna Convention and the Montreal Protocol. Secondly, in the development of cleaner and more energy-efficient technologies that are more cost effective and hence will be taken up through market forces even in the absence of regulatory pressures.

Though these forces may have their initial impact in the developed countries, they will also benefit the developing ones. They will provide new or better tools for technology development in developing countries themselves (see subsection on biotechnology in Section 12.5), and some of the technologies for developed country markets will be directly usable, such as certain biopesticides, or adaptable to developing country conditions, such as surge irrigation.

12.4 Population pressure and technological change

Analyses of the complex relationships between growth in total population and the part of it dependent on agriculture, land use (and hence environmental change) and technological change, help to put this study's projections into a wider perspective. They also provide useful insights for policies to make them guide rather than work against the natural processes determining the intensification of land use and the adoption of technologies. Two points of view tend to prevail. The first assumes that there is a negative relationship between the growth of the population dependent on agriculture in conditions of poverty and environmental quality. The second looks at the relationship in a more dynamic way and with greater regard for the economic dimension.

The first viewpoint lays great emphasis on the fact that the pressure of population bearing on a limited land base and the slow introduction of farmer based or formal research-based innovations in response to these pressures, has had widespread negative impacts on the environment. Reduced fallow periods and tree cover on erodible soils, together with the slowness of the natural processes that restore soil fertility, have lowered land productivity through loss of nutrients or nutrient mining.

The second viewpoint is centred on the work of Ester Boserup (Boserup, 1965, 1981) who applied the concepts of factor substitution (labour for land) and technological change to hypothesize that as population density increases, technological changes occur autonomously through shortening fallow periods, increasing inputs of labour and the adoption of improved tools (planting sticks to hoes to animal-drawn ploughs). According to this hypothesis the problem of population growth, giving rise to an increased demand for food, can lead to its own solution by altering factor prices: first increasing scarcity of land compared to labour, giving rise to increased land intensification or shortening fallow and increased use of labour; and then increasing scarcity of labour at some stage through the land intensification sequence - gathering, forest fallow, bush fallow, grass fallow and annual cropping-leading to the adoption of improved tools. Such a process of "farmer-based innovation" (Pingali and Binswanger, 1984) describes the evolutionary process of adapting production technology to changes in factor scarcity. The responsiveness of "science-based innovation" to economy-wide factors, such as its endowment of land and labour, the non-agricultural demand for labour and conditions of demand for food and other agricultural products, gave rise to the closely associated concept of "induced innovation" (Binswanger and Ruttan, 1978; Hayami and Ruttan, 1985). Thus the land-scarce agricultural economy of Japan by the late 1800s gave rise to biological innovations that increased yields per unit of land, while the USA, which at that time had 100 times more land per head of agricultural labour, adopted a mechanized agricultural technology. In the USA, biological innovations were not adopted widely until several decades later, in the 1940s, in response to rising land values.

The autonomous process, however, leading to appropriate institutional and technological responses to the pressures on the environment, such as the building of terraces to control erosion, and the utilization of organic manure to restore fertility, may not occur fast enough if population growth is rapid or, conversely, is constrained by labour shortages if an easier, less labour demanding option is open in the form of migration. The adoption of research-based innovations may also be constrained by deficiencies in infrastructure, extension and marketing and credit systems. Thus the end result can be a treadmill of low rates of adoption of either farmer-based or research-based innovations, low productivity agriculture, environmental degradation and poverty. As noted in Chapter 2, failure of institutions governing land tenure to adapt to changing conditions contributes to create a vicious circle between poverty and environmental degradation.

There remains the issue of poverty, which is commonly associated with these treadmill situations. It can be argued that in some situations poverty becomes part of the solution as the poor respond by migrating; by making personal sacrifices so that their children can be educated and find better employment opportunities outside agriculture; and by diversifying their agricultural and non-agricultural incomes in response to changing market opportunities. This benign process is clearly exemplified by the recent longitudinal study of the Machakos district of Kenya (see Box 12.1). In other cases, the necessary conditions are not in place and poverty and environmental degradation coexist and become mutually reinforcing.

Box 12.1 Environmental recovery in the Machakos district of Kenya*

Large parts of this agroecologically diverse district of some 1.4 million ha are inherently marginal for the production of the preferred staple, maize. Much of it is highly sloping land with a mean annual rainfall of less than 800 mm per year which is spread over two rainy seasons, with marked inter- and intra annual variation. Consequently, with such constraints and low population pressure in the more favoured areas, it was largely uninhabited at the beginning of this century. This changed rapidly. The best lands were settled first, followed by the more marginal ones. By the 1930s substantial areas were so badly degraded by crop production and grazing that observers of the time thought that the district was on the edge of ecological collapse. There was severe soil erosion over about 75 percent of the inhabited area, and tree cover was down to around 5 percent. By the 1940s the population carrying capacity of the district was exceeded at the prevailing low levels of technological inputs.

Yet by 1990 the picture had changed completely. The population of over I.4 million was nearly six times that of the early 1930s, with population densities in the most marginal agroecological zones increasing nearly 30-fold between 1932 and 1989. Agricultural output was up, dependence on food imports from other districts was down, and there was less soil erosion and more tree cover.

Thus, and contrary to the prevailing view, population growth meant less degradation and a more sustainable agriculture. The factors involved, and their sequencing, have been thoroughly analysed. There was internal and external migration from the 1920s onwards in response to land shortages, with the former being to more marginal lands within the district. External migration to urban areas was followed by return flows of remittances which provided part of the subsequent capital needs for agricultural development. Then, there was intensification of land use, starting in the late 1930s on the better and more populated lands close to the urban markets, but not until the 1960s on the less populated "marginal" lands. This intensification was largely through reduction of the fallow periods, the introduction of multiple cropping, the closer integration of crop and livestock production, and heavier applications of manure, compost, or, in the case of export crops, mineral fertilizer. It was paralleled or followed by the widespread adoption of soil conservation measures to rehabilitate degraded land, notably conservation tillage, contour farming and terracing (the proportion of treated area in total area rose from about 52 percent in 1948 to 96 percent in 1978), with substantial gains from soil erosion reduction and from enhanced rainfall infiltration and soil moisture retention. This widespread adoption was encouraged by the introduction of a range of cash crops, particularly coffee, fruit and other horticultural crops that gave higher incomes than staple crops, and thus made soil conservation more profitable. Finally, and perhaps most critically, there was investment in improved roads and other infrastructure needed for ready access to urban and overseas markets and to local processing locations. Much of the incentive and the capital for this retreat from supposed ecological disaster came from the people of Machakos themselves with significant community and local NGO inputs and relatively small central government and donor inputs.

Source: Tiffen et al. (1993).

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