Chapter 13: Minimizing the trade-offs between the environment and agricultural development

Contents - Previous - Next

13.1 Introduction
13.2 The north-south divide
13.3 A strategy for minimizing environment and development trade-offs
13.4 Minimizing specific trade-offs
13.5 The endpoint and the beginning

13.1 Introduction

The preceding chapters have demonstrated that there are commonly a number of trade-offs between the environment, food security and other aspects of development. Some of the trade-offs are avoidable, but others are not. The underlying issues were clarified and brought into prominence by the Brundtland Commission. Its report emphasized the difficult task of reconciling the short-term imperative of increasing food and agricultural production as well as incomes for the current generation with the longer term, but almost unspecifiable, need of conserving natural resources for meeting the requirements of future generations (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987). Thus, while the long-term objective may be sustainable development of agriculture and of the whole economy, the pathways or processes involved may have to breach the environmental requirements of this goal in the short to medium term. Hence the importance of minimizing the trade-offs.

Chapter 11 spelt out as far as possible the pressures on the environment associated with the possible future evolution of agriculture. Many of the pressures on the environment associated with the quest for development have, however, become a subject of contention between the developed and the developing countries and account for some of the differing priorities pursued by these two groups at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) and other international fore.

13.2 The north-south divide

The developed countries tend to give priority to the environmental dimension and to measures to limit natural resource degradation, in spite of the economic and social costs that may be associated with such measures. In doing so they seldom acknowledge that a sound environment is, in some respects at least, a luxury good which they can now afford, but which in their earlier history they had largely ignored. The developing countries, of necessity, tend to argue for different priorities. They recognize the importance of shifting on to a more sustainable growth path and at UNCED gave overwhelming support to AGENDA 21 (Box 13.1), and the conventions on biodiversity and climate change. But they emphasize the need to ensure that environmental measures do not have adverse effects on their development, arguing, for example, that unless rural poverty is eliminated, many of their people will have no alternative to overexploiting natural resources for day-to-day survival.

Most developed countries have already taken measures to overcome or continue to alleviate the more serious agricultural threats to the environment. They have, for example, taken marginal land out of production; reduced or banned the use of mineral fertilizers and residual pesticides on sensitive watersheds vulnerable to groundwater contamination; tightened the controls on waste disposal from intensive livestock units, and so on. Further measures to protect the environment from agricultural pressures are largely a question of social choice since they have the economic and technical capabilities to introduce additional control measures or technologies that are environmentally more benign and sustainable. They can also bear with less economic hardship than the developing countries the eventual economic consequences of such action, e.g. higher food costs and/or higher food imports or lower exports. With the wider acceptance of, and further progress in, environment-friendly technologies, it can be expected that trade-offs between the environment and development, as the latter is conventionally defined and measured (e.g. per caput incomes, etc.), will tend to become smaller.

The situation in most developing countries is quite different. For them, improving agricultural resources management is a social imperative rather than a social choice, because degradation of these resources is both a cause and a result of poverty (see Chapter 2). But their environmental options are often severely constrained in the short to medium term at least. They will have to use more of their less productive land, as well as some of their wetlands with high agricultural potential. They cannot reduce their often low use of mineral fertilizers without endangering food security and intensifying soil degradation, and cannot exploit more fully technological options for integrated plant nutrition quickly. For some production or environmental problems appropriate technical solutions do not yet exist and are not readily available or affordable. Any appreciable rise in food production costs and consumer prices would have adverse effects on already low consumption levels, and many countries could not afford to increase commercial food imports. Finally, they are already finding it very difficult to maintain existing levels of public services, so environmental measures are commonly in direct competition for scarce resources with projects for investment in material and human capital.

Fortunately, there is much that can be done to minimize these trade-offs, and there are also a number of actions which are sounder in environmental terms as well as profitable. Chapter 12 has dealt with the technological problems and opportunities. It remains for this chapter to consider the wider institutional and policy changes that are needed to provide the right incentives and support mechanisms for the technology uptake required to achieve the agricultural production projected in this study, and to contribute to sustainable agriculture and rural development (SARD). Section 13.3 suggests what the main thrusts might be of a strategy to minimize any environmental and development tradeoffs. Section 13.4 moves from strategy to tactics and deals with policies and resource management measures to address the main environmental pressures emanating from the continuation of agricultural growth.

Box 13.1 The outcome of UNCED*

The UN Conference on Environment and Development (Rio de Janeiro, 3-14 June 1992), at which 172 Member Governments were represented, concluded with the Earth Summit, during which 102 Heads of State and Government made statements, expressing their commitment to environmentally sound and sustainable development. The main agreements reached and subsequently endorsed by the 47th Session of the UN General Assembly were:

1. The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (to be further elaborated as an Earth Charter for adoption by the UN General Assembly in 1995 on the 50th anniversary of the UN).

2. Agenda 21, which describes in some 280 pages a comprehensive plan of action consisting of 115 programme areas, grouped in 40 chapters. Of particular interest to food and agriculture are Chapter 10, integrated approach to the planning and management of land resources; Chapter 11, combating deforestation; Chapter 12, managing fragile ecosystems: combating desertification and drought; Chapter 13, managing fragile ecosystems: sustainable mountain development; Chapter 14, promoting sustainable agriculture and rural development; and Chapter 17, oceans and marine resources.

3. The Framework Convention on Climate Change, signed by 162 governments.

4. The Convention on Biological Diversity, signed by 159 governments.

5. The "non-legally binding authoritative statement of principles for a global consensus on the management, conservation and development of all types of forests", which may lead to "internationally agreed arrangements to promote international cooperation".

6. Agreement on sources and mechanisms to mobilize financing for Agenda 21, including new and additional resources m grants and concessional terms from the international community: (a) the multilateral development banks and funds, including the IDA, regional and sub-regional development banks and the Global Environment Facility (GEF); (b) the relevant specialized agencies, other UN bodies and international organizations; (c) multilateral institutions for capacity building and technical cooperation; (d) bilateral assistance programmes; (e) debt relief; (f) private funding (NGOs); (g) investment; and (h) innovative financing.

7. International institutional arrangements for follow-up, particularly the establishment of the Commission for Sustainable Development of ECOSOC, and an Inter-Agency Committee on Sustainable Development, established by the ACC.

8. The launching of a negotiated process for an International Convention to combat desertification in those countries experiencing serious drought and/or desertification, particularly in Africa. The Convention was finalized in June 1994.

9. Convening of a number of UN conferences, among them the Conference on Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks (New York, July 1993), and the Global Conference on Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States (Barbados, April 1994).

*See also FAO (1993b).

13.3 A strategy for minimizing environment and development trade-offs

The technological opportunities considered in Chapter 12 are not sufficient in themselves to stimulate ecologically sound and sustainable development to 2010 and beyond. The economic and institutional environment must also be favourable. Farmers must have better access to proven technologies, production inputs and services, and to markets for their products. They must be secure in their rights to access to land and other resources so that they have the stability and confidence to take up the technological opportunities and make the necessary investments. And, finally since few technologies are totally risk free in the absence of safeguards to protect public goods, there must be an appropriate regulatory environment. Inconsistencies or gaps in these supporting measures can seriously undermine the effectiveness of individual technologies and of the total package. It is therefore essential that the minimization of trade-offs and actions to shift agriculture on to a sustainable growth path take place within a consistent strategic framework.

FAO took the lead in developing such a framework as one of its contributions to the UN Conference on Environment and Development (FAO, 1991c). In particular, FAO took responsibility for a number of the chapters of AGENDA 21, the main operational recommendations of the Conference (see Box 13.1). AGENDA 21 contains proposals for a wide range of technical and institutional changes that support the policy and other assumptions underlying the 2010 projections, and which are essential for longer term development (UN, 1993a). These numerous changes form an overall strategy for sustainable agricultural and rural development in the long term. But within this overall strategy it is possible to think of component strategies which focus on specific issues, in this case the minimization of environment and development trade-offs, e.g. by lowering the pressure to clear primary forests or drain wetlands for agricultural use.

The preceding chapters, in particular Chapters 7 to 10, have discussed the main thrust of policies that should underpin efforts to improve the performance of agriculture, reduce rural poverty and improve access to food.

It remains for this chapter to discuss the issues that are more specific to the objective of having a strategy which seeks to minimize the environment development trade-offs. First, as shown in Chapter 12, emphasis must be put on shifting technology from "hardware" solutions requiring large inputs of fixed and variable capital, e.g. machine-made land terraces or pesticides, to solutions based on more sophisticated, knowledge and information-based resource management practices. The latter solutions carry fewer environmental, economic and health risks for the producer, agricultural worker and consumer. Examples are vegetative barriers to soil erosion instead of machine- or man-made terraces, and integrated pest management based on knowledge of predator-prey relationships, as opposed to control strategies based mainly on the use of pesticides. Thus they aim to lower both off-farm costs and environmental pressures. Machine-made terraces, for example, require large capital investments. These commonly come from scarce public resources and hence compete with other needs, including expenditure on health and education. The machinery and the fossil fuel to run them generally have to be imported using scarce foreign exchange. Such terraces often fail through early neglect because they were introduced through a top-down process that excluded farmers and communities from the design or implementation stages.

Second, greater importance must be given to establishing well-defined property or user rights for public and private resources. Examples are land tenure arrangements or the creation of user groups commonly building on traditional systems. In Africa especially, the latter tend to work better than Western style individual titling of land holdings. Without such changes, users of common property resources will have little or no incentive to exploit them in a sustainable way; uncontrolled development will commonly lower the economic benefits of given resources. Clear rights of access to land, on the other hand, provide economic and social incentives to protect and improve resources, although it is seldom a sufficient condition alone to achieve these objectives.

Third, success depends greatly on people's participation and decentralized resource management. In the main it is small farmers, herders and forest dwellers who make the key decisions about resource use. They decide whether to adopt sustainable practices, to clear forests or plough up pastures, and they do so in response to household security needs and incentives rather than government dictates. And collectively, as villages or larger communities, they decide about watershed management. The public sector of developing countries cannot afford the cost of enforcing such requirements, and furthermore lacks the vested interest of owners and users in safeguarding the resources being exploited.

Fourth, as far as possible market signals must embody proper valuation of environmental goods. As far as possible, commodity prices should include all direct and indirect environmental costs. Public bodies cannot "police" all aspects of resource use without their becoming a politically and economically unsustainable burden. The alternative is to use price signals to achieve the same broad objective, but with the support of a national and international regulatory environment that sets appropriate standards, e.g. certification schemes for timber harvested in a sustainable way, and labelling requirements for "organically" produced commodities.

The above basic thrusts of a broad global nature are a prerequisite for some countries to achieve the agricultural improvements projected for 2010 while minimizing trade-offs with the environment. To a greater or lesser degree, however, they are essential to all countries, developed and developing, if the output projected for 2010 is to be sustainable in the long term. But these thrusts are not sufficient in themselves. If they are to lead to effective policy changes and operational measures, they must be amplified and adapted to national circumstances and to the specific problems of different agroecosystems. Four broad agroecosystems account for more than 95 percent of food and agricultural production in the developing countries, and their individual contributions to present and future production are recognized in the projections. They are dryland/uncertain rainfall, lowland humid/per-humid, irrigated and hill/mountain agroecosystems. These may co-exist within a single country, although any one of them may dominate. The specific characteristics, problems and opportunities of such agroecosystems can provide a rational basis for strategic planning at the national or supra-national level. However, the final trade-off decisions will have to be made by the farmer or local community who may have to make decisions with regard to resources with different production characteristics.

Most important of all is the need to adopt a strategic approach to the national institutional setting or framework since this is a unique blend of cultural, political, economic, social and physical factors, that govern the validity of the different trade-offs. The strategy must be national yet operationally decentralized. Certain responsibilities will have to be carried at the national level but with much of the consequent action being devolved to the user. It is the sovereign responsibility of governments to reconcile the resource demands of present users and the needs of future generations. Only governments have authority over the required range of legal, fiscal and social instruments as well as the supporting institutions and services. Only governments have the authority to make binding agreements on trans-border issues, such as the management of international water basins, that are vital for sustainable development and environmental protection. Yet the potential for government failure is indisputable and there are distinct limits to the role governments and national bodies can play in natural resource management. Therefore, much of the responsibility for specific trade-off decisions must be left to local communities and farmers, encouraged by appropriate national policies and regulations.

The strategy must recognize that the first priority of many farmers is household food security and family welfare. Farmers will trade off immediate food production, even though it may involve some degradation, against a less tangible but sustainable future. Thus efforts to minimize trade-offs must be centred on actions that improve household food supply or food purchasing power, reduce seasonal fluctuations and improve overall access to food. Moreover, meeting food needs is not enough. The strategy must be profitable to farmers and other private investors on time scales which meet their differing circumstances or risk perceptions. At a minimum they must have the time or earnings to invest in sustainability.

Any strategy must have a legal basis and well-defined rules for resource utilization. Strategies must clearly define responsibilities and allocate rights of access to or use of environmental resources (see Section 13.4). They must be socio-politically acceptable and equitable as well as within the implementation capacity of both governments and individuals. Governments must be both willing and able to exert their sovereign responsibilities for action. First, the political will must exist to accept possible negative public reactions to tradeoffs that are perceived to restrict private behaviour. Then governments must ensure that sound public or private institutional mechanisms exist to provide all farmers and communities with the support services needed to act on the options for minimizing trade-offs. They must also respond to any major social stresses arising from the need for people to move out of agriculture into other sectors.

13.4 Minimizing specific trade-offs

As stated in the introduction, some trade-offs between the environment and agricultural development are unavoidable in the short to medium term at least. First, some developing countries may have to clear more of their natural forests and drain part of their wetlands in order to feed their people, promote economic growth and improve net social well-being. Secondly, appropriate environmentally sound technologies do not exist for many problems or situations, so less sustainable ones will have to be used in the short to medium term while research develops suitable replacements. Thirdly, they have insufficient suitably trained manpower. Finally, many developing countries lack the local and central institutional mechanisms required to collect and analyse data relating to resource management, to assess the various options open to them, to improve the functioning of markets, and to obtain farmer and rural community support. Some of these obstacles will take at least a decade to overcome and, in some instances, much longer.

Minimizing the trade-offs requires a holistic approach with three main dimensions-technical, institutional and international-which have their own policy requirements but must also be formulated and implemented together in order to give overall policy consistency.

The technical dimension

Population and economic growth has raised food and agriculture demand above levels that can be produced by extensive, environmentally sound, farming practices (see Chapter 12). Consequently farming practices have to be intensified and output raised by technical inputs that may have unavoidable environmental penalties in the short term. Yet these penalties can be ameliorated and must be placed in their proper perspective. The nitrate problem in groundwater and surface water, and the issue of mineral versus organic sources of nitrogen, provide illustrations. There are those who argue for a complete ban on the use of mineral fertilizer. This is totally unrealistic. It would not solve the groundwater nitrate problem, and would inevitably lead to serious food shortages, declining incomes and malnutrition, as well as creating greater soil degradation through nutrient mining for the following reasons:

1. Both mineral and organic sources of nitrogen contribute to the problem. Examples are when mineral fertilizers are broadcast on the soil surface, or organic manures are applied to fallow land when there are no crops to take up the nutrients released by breakdown of the manure, and they are leached down into the groundwater. Again, sometimes livestock units or fish farms dispose of their organic wastes directly into streams and rivers, or store them badly so that they are dissolved by rain and carried off into the surface water system.

2. In large areas of Africa, for example, there is insufficient organic nitrogen available from livestock manures or legume-based production systems. Hence organic sources of nitrogen alone cannot achieve the high yields required to compensate for the small size of farms, or to meet basic food needs at the national level. Achievement of higher farm incomes and prevention of nutrient mining inevitably imply increased use of mineral and organic fertilizers' and the release of their residues into the environment. Nonetheless much can be done to minimize the problem. Some of the technical measures for limiting the problems through the adoption of IPNS and other measures to raise fertilizer use efficiency were shown in Chapter 12. But as with other technical measures for soil conservation, pest control, irrigation and water management, mere existence is not enough, nor are unconstrained market forces. There are also a range of institutional requirements to shape and support development and uptake of these measures.

The institutional dimension

It is difficult to establish the nature and magnitude of some of the causal relationships between institutional change and environment impacts, and hence the precise role of such changes in minimizing the trade-offs. It is clear, however, that changes are required at a number of levels to achieve greater consistency between the technical and the institutional dimensions. Actions are required at the national and local planning levels to restrict or direct resource use; at the research and extension level to develop and transfer to farmers, forest users and fishermen the knowledge of sustainable technologies and agricultural practices; at the technological input level to ensure that the delivery systems operate efficiently and in the interests of the users; at the input and commodity price policy level to avoid or ameliorate market distortions so that farmers have the economic incentive to shift on to a more sustainable technological pathway. Finally, actions are necessary to create a regulatory environment that ensures that public goods such as air and water are protected, and consumers are not placed at risk through the overuse of pesticides, fertilizers, livestock growth promoters, etc.

Concerning the scope for resource development planning, it is noted that national water and land use plans tend to be rigid in their perception and unrealistic in their objectives and mechanisms for implementation. It is not possible to legislate for sustainable land use. The basic motivation must come from the awareness, self-interest in terms of household food security or welfare objectives, and functional capacity of the user.

This is not to say that national resource use planning is not vitally important, but to present the case for a more balanced institutional mechanism which brings together the top-down and the bottom-up approaches. National planning for resource use and management is important in a number of key areas:

1. Determining the land and water resources most suited for development or more intensive use as the first step in the planning process leading to land or water use changes, and the formulation of price and other incentives for resource users that are as consistent as possible with the sustainable management of those resources.

2. Helping to resolve problems of competition between different sectors or sub-sectors for diminishing land and water resources, and catalysing or imposing their conjunctive use, e.g. through agroforestry or the use of urban waste waters for irrigation.

3. Identifying and protecting fragile ecosystems, critically important habitats, sources of biodiversity and watersheds, through the creation of national parks, collection of germplasm and so on.

4. Ensuring spatially balanced rather than unipolar urban development so that it is not centred on one or two mega-cities, and as far as possible secondary towns and cities are allowed to expand or are developed in areas with marginal soils yet adjacent to regions with good soils that can sustain them without overstretching the lines of communication between producers and consumers.

5. Establishing road, rail and water links that do not expose protected areas to informal development; improve access between the areas which can develop sustainable production systems and their urban or overseas markets so that resource users have both the incentive and the financial means to adopt better conservation measures etc., and minimize the transaction costs for supporting farmers with production inputs and the urban areas with food and agroindustrial raw materials.

6. Determining the allocation of public support between agriculturally marginal areas and those with high production potential. This requires a careful and analytically rigorous assessment of land suitability, in that current marginality is not necessarily a true reflection of land potential given appropriate soil conservation measures and other technological changes as has been demonstrated clearly by the people of the Machakos district of Kenya (see Box 12.1). Thus it is important to have a clear understanding of how research may change land use suitability, and widen the resource use options. It also needs an appreciation of what is happening in the rest of the economy, in that although the long-term objective may be to encourage people to move out of the marginal lands into areas which can provide more sustainable livelihoods, this may not be possible in the short to medium term. Hence, public resources may need to be allocated to the marginal areas, more or less as a holding operation while the possibilities for alternative livelihoods are put in place.

7. Monitoring land and water use to anticipate problems of resource competition and degradation, and to identify and implement corrective actions, e.g. through conjunctive use of water as noted above.

8. Where feasible, charging for resources such as water, often regarded as an open access resource, at least to maintain infrastructure and protect water catchments.

Research, extension and technology

Chapter 4 drew attention to the large gap between current best farmer yields and national average yields. However, it also stressed that there are gaps between the available technologies and those needed for achieving the production levels projected for 2010 in an environmentally sound way, and for setting the foundation for long-term sustainable growth. The institutional problems are manifold. They start with the lack of political awareness of the role agriculture plays in economic development (see Chapter 7). There is also a lack of appreciation of: (a) the large returns that can come from sound agricultural research which may exceed by far those stemming from alternative development investments; and (b) the contribution such research makes to resource conservation by reducing the pressure to bring undeveloped land into cultivation. In India, for example, the introduction of high-yielding wheat varieties may have saved about 30 million ha of marginal lands and forests from being brought into wheat cultivation. Research also contributes indirectly to resource conservation to the extent that increased productivity and incomes reduce rural poverty and help overall development.

Then there is the skill gap for technology development, and the scaling up of research for commercialization, which needs to be addressed by appropriate manpower and institutional support (see Chapter 10). Providing this support leads to the problems of the research and extension institutions and mechanisms themselves, because in the main they have not focused their efforts on the issue of sustainability. They have seldom focused on the land areas with pressing environmental problems or on sustainable technologies appropriate to poor farmers in these areas or in high potential regions. There needs to be better mechanisms for research priority setting at the national level because the International Agricultural Research Centres (IARCs) cannot be expected to do the adaptive research or the more fundamental research for. geographically confined problems. Large- and small-scale farmers need to be more closely involved in the identification of research problems and to be drawn more frequently into partnerships with scientists for the solution of these problems, building on the best of indigenous and laboratory knowledge.

Economic policies affecting agriculture, as well as policies relating to public sector involvement in input and commodity marketing, have been dealt with in some depth in Chapters 7 and 9. Hence it is sufficient just to underline the importance for reversal of policies which discriminate against agriculture and lead to unsustainable practices by making unprofitable the use of inputs and the diffusion of sustainable technologies. In particular, policies, including those relating to the functioning of marketing parastatals, must be corrected to remove: (a) upward distortions in the price of production inputs through import restrictions and tariffs; and (b) uncertainties regarding the timely supply of seeds and mineral fertilizers, in cases of parastatals with monopoly powers for their sale and distribution, in that late delivery exposes the farmers to poor returns from what to them are high cost and risky expenditures. One should not forget that subsidies provided to pesticides and mineral fertilizers can also lead to their excessive use, causing the degradation problems discussed in Chapter 11. These and other problems of public sector origin have been common disincentives for the adoption of soil conservation techniques, the balanced use of mineral fertilizers and other requirements for meeting food security and wider development needs in a sustainable way.

The regulatory environment

Developed country experience has shown that the foregoing actions are not sufficient in themselves to direct growth towards a pathway that brings social and environmental objectives together. Land use planning, for example, may identify which areas to protect and which are the most favourable for development, but the introduction of new technologies and unconstrained market forces are likely to override such planning considerations and therefore need to be backed by legally enforceable restrictions. Similarly, diminishing marginal returns to mineral fertilizer use may not limit their application rates soon enough to prevent serious groundwater pollution. It follows, therefore, that public institutions must be established to set appropriate regulatory standards, to monitor compliance with them, and to take suitable legal or financial steps when practices are not meeting the objective of minimizing environment and development trade-offs.

The required regulatory measures are quite diverse, and include: (a) statutory restrictions on the use of protected areas or on the development of high quality arable land for urban/industrial use; (b) restrictions on the use of mineral fertilizers on sensitive watersheds; (c) constraints on the quantity and timing of organic fertilizer applications to land; (d) design requirements for manure storage on livestock farms; (e) effluent quality standards for discharges to water courses from livestock units, fish farms, and agroprocessing activities; (f) sanitation standards for slaughterhouses and cold storage units; (g) restrictions on the type of pesticides that can be imported and used, and the timing of their application in conformity with the International Code of Conduct on the Distribution and Use of Pesticides (FAO, 1990e) and Codex Alimentarius (FAO, 1994a), respectively; (h) controls on the labelling of pesticide containers and their disposal; and (i) biosafety standards for the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment.

Property rights

Unsustainable agricultural practices commonly take place where those involved have limited or no property or user rights to the resources they are overexploiting. The awarding of secure rights, whether individual or communal, would greatly increase their vested interest in improving resource management and investing in soil conservation and other land improvements. Property rights have a wider institutional dimension relating to the efficiency of markets and the management of public goods. Environmental trade-offs are also not minimized in situations when the institutions controlling public goods have collapsed, or because markets are not able to value public goods such as fresh air, or to cost public "bads" such as pollution. Markets must be made to work better by defining property rights more precisely and establishing or strengthening the institutions to manage them; introducing realistic prices for environmental goods such as water; and attempting to cost public "bads" and adopting "the polluter pays principle" where this is appropriate.

The international dimension

This dimension is particularly important given that much of the mismanagement of natural resources in developing countries relates to poverty and to the lack of economic growth to provide better and sustainable livelihoods outside subsistence agriculture. Minimizing the tradeoffs needs a global economic environment that is more conducive to growth so that the developing countries can significantly increase gainful employment outside agriculture. This is critically important for those arid, highland and land-locked countries with predominantly marginal land which tend to suffer from high transport costs for off-farm inputs like mineral fertilizers and/or poor inherent biological productivity. Therefore, any policies which affect the development prospects of the developing countries via the link of the international economic environment are of direct importance to the objective of minimizing the environment-development trade-offs. Here belong the issues of trade, debt and resource flows. Some of these issues are discussed in other chapters and the discussion is not repeated here.

Of particular interest is the extent to which environmental pressures are transmitted among countries by means of the agricultural trade flows. The terms "environmental subsidies'' or "ecological footprints" are sometimes used to denote the transmission of such pressures. For example, there might be environmental subsidies from the USA to those countries which import large quantities of maize from the USA, whose production contributes to soil erosion, involves heavy applications of mineral fertilizers and pesticides which are a source of ground and surface pollution and a negative pressure on natural ecosystems. Similarly, the Netherlands exports dairy products which indirectly are a major cause of pollution in the Netherlands. On the other hand, the Netherlands, together with other European countries, imports large quantities of cassava chips from South-East Asia, which are commonly grown in high rainfall areas on steep slopes with fragile soils, and result in very large soil losses through erosion. Thus, these are issues for developed and developing countries alike, but with the former better able to adopt the "polluter pays principle" or to introduce environmental regulations to make market prices reflect the environmental costs (for more discussions see Chapter 8).

13.5 The endpoint and the beginning

The possible environmental dimensions of the agricultural projections have been edged with uncertainty but they are objective as far as the data and understanding of them allow. They will be wrong to some degree or other. The feedback loops between the economy, agricultural development and the environment are too complex and too dynamic to mimic with any certainty. And consequently, the strengths of the trade-offs and their associated risks are equally uncertain, hence the present stress on minimizing them, and adopting the precautionary principle. Nonetheless, two aspects seem clear.

First, it is important not to take an excessively static view of what is possible. The people of the Machakos district of Kenya have shown that it is possible to turn back from the edge of environmental disaster, rehabilitate seriously degraded land and introduce more sustainable production systems (Box 12.1) as have others in China, Indonesia and many agroecologically different parts of the world.

Second, the required actions go well beyond the so-called technological fix, although new technologies based on the latest scientific understanding will be vitally important, as will the revival or up-grading of indigenous technologies. They include international action to create a more open and equitable trading system with wider and stronger environmental safeguards, and to channel development assistance towards sustainable agriculture in a more consistent way. But the key actions are at the national and local levels. They include those which promote development, create a regulatory and incentive environment that encourage the uptake of sustainable technologies, promote decentralized, participatory, bottom-up approaches to natural resource planning and management, and contribute to slowing down the population growth rate.

Perhaps most important of all, what is required is more recognition of the anthropocentric approach to development and to the very idea of environmental conservation, and greater humility among those who argue for an ecocentric approach that does not match the expectations and resources of the farmers in the poor countries.


1. "Some people say that Africa's food problems can be solved without the applications of chemical fertilizers. They are dreaming. It is not possible". Norman Borlaug, Financial Times, 10 June 1994.

2. Environmental subsidies are the costs of land degradation, loss of biodiversity and so on arising from agricultural production, that an exporting country gives to an importing country when the prices of the traded goods do not embody such costs. Ecological footprints are the total inputs of natural resources and environmental services from the land, sea and air that are required to sustain a given population at its current consumption rate. A country which is totally self-sufficient in food, fuel, minerals and other natural resources, and did not trade in them, would have a footprint that falls entirely within its own national boundaries if it could also confine its pollution to those boundaries.

Contents - Previous - Next