Sustainable agriculture and rural development



In the future, growth in food production will depend largely on finding ways to increase the productivity of existing agricultural land.

The FAO definition of sustainable agricultural development is "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 development... conserves land, water, plant and animal genetic resources, is environmentally non-degrading, technically appropriate, economically viable and socially acceptable."



Jungle fowl

Potatoes, Peru

Apples, France

The genes of wild animals such as the gaur and jungle fowl can be used to "refresh" the gene base of livestock.

Old varieties represent a valuable gene bank that can be utilized to create improved crops.

The challenges of increasing food production are daunting. Despite great agricultural advances, millions go hungry or live under threat of famine. Food production will have to double between 1995 and the year 2025 if the expected population of up to 8 500 million is to be fed adequately.

Parallel with population growth is the impact of pollution and the degradation of natural resources that threaten to limit gains in production and imperil sustainable agriculture. Achieving sustainable agriculture and rural development (SARD) will not be easy. Most of the best agricultural land is already under cultivation. The rate of expansion of cropland fell from 1 percent a year during the 1950s to 0.3 percent by the 1970s: by 1990 it was virtually at a standstill. Per caput water availability is also falling rapidly. Future increases in production depend mainly on increasing the productivity of existing agricultural land and water resources.

Farmer involvement is the key to sustainable agriculture. Given the right incentives and government support, farm families can and are making significant progress towards managing their land and water sustainably.

Some traditional farming systems using low inputs have improved yields while safeguarding the resource base. Indonesian rice farmers who adopted integrated pest management (IPM), which reduces the need for pesticides, soon achieved higher yields than those who relied solely on pesticides.

A diversity of crops or varieties can help protect farmers against failure. In a single Amazon community in Peru 168 different species of plants are cultivated. Small-scale potato growers in the Andes grow up to 100 distinct varieties, with a typical household growing 10-12.

Agricultural systems, in both developed and developing countries, need to use new approaches to increase food supplies while protecting the resources on which they depend. This can be achieved with practices that:

The ultimate objective should be the optimum mix of agricultural practices, both old and new, in order to maximize sustainable output within the limits of available resources.


Areas affected by atmospheric and coastal pollution

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Essential ingredients for sustainable development

Biological Continued conservation of genetic resources is essential if food supplies are to be increased. Authorities in regions rich in genetic resources should be encouraged to conserve wild species of animals and plants.

Physical Soil and water must be conserved to sustain plant productivity. This requires the introduction of land management to reduce or halt topsoil erosion and to maintain or increase the water-holding capacity of soil. Irrigated agriculture needs to be overhauled where water is wasted or crop yields are declining as a result of soil salinity and waterlogging. Atmospheric pollution, including acid rain, harms crops and forest stands. Excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides poisons soils and reduces productivity.

Social Clear property rights and land tenure systems provide powerful incentives for owners and tenants to use their land in a sustainable way. Land tenure systems need reform in countries where land distribution is grossly unfair or where laws are inadequate to control land use, protect forests and safeguard rangelands. Participation must also be encouraged by local controls over planning and the allocation of resources.

Economic Farmers in developing countries need fair prices for their produce and better agricultural infrastructure, including adequate extension services and efficient transport for getting their food to markets. They need incentives to conserve soil and water resources.


Agenda 21

Agenda 21 is the action plan adopted by leaders from 169 countries who met at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) generally referred to as the Earth Summit - in Rio de Janeiro. The action plan devotes a chapter to sustainable agriculture and rural development, which lays down that "major adjustments are needed in agricultural, environmental and macroeconomic policy, at both national and international levels, in developed as well as developing countries, to create the conditions for sustainable agriculture and rural development."

Sustainable development considerations, it says, must be integrated with agricultural analysis in all countries, not just developing ones, and notes that at present there is a "widespread absence" of such coherent national policy frameworks. Governments, it urges, should have sound policies in place by the turn of the century.

Agenda 21 puts priority on maintaining and improving the productivity of the best lands in order to support an expanding population. But, at the same time, the less good lands should be conserved and rehabilitated and further encroachment on marginal land should be avoided.

It provides detailed proposals in 12 policy areas. These include land reform and encouraging people to invest in the land by being provided with ownership, finance and the means to market their produce at fair prices. People should be trained in how to conserve the soil, combining the best contributions of both modern and traditional techniques. There should be better conservation of genetic resources. The benefits of plant breeding should be shared between those who provide and those who use the raw materials for it. And integrated pest management and plant nutrition should be widely adopted.


Elements for sustainable agriculture and rural development


Government level: policies, instruments, development plans, agrarian reform, nutrition surveys, food quality and food security, data, monitoring, early warning systems

Rural community level: development of local organizations and capacity building for people's participation, training, extension

Area level: for example, coastal zones, watersheds, river basins, agroecological zones

Production unit level: farming systems, diversification to increase incomes, creation of rural industries, credit and marketing

Consumer level: improving nutrition and food quality, adjusting dietary patterns, product marketing


Land: land use planning, land management, soil conservation, land rehabilitation

Water: water conservation, irrigation improvements, water database development, water-users, associations

Plant and animal biological resources: conservation of genetic resources, development of varieties and breeds

Trees and forests: reduction of deforestation rates, sustainable forest management and wood harvesting, promotion of non-wood forest uses and industries, conservation of habitats, integrating trees in farming systems

Fisheries: reduction of fishing effort to maximize production, increasing aquaculture production, exploitation of new species


Pest management: programmes and projects on integrated pest control. control of pesticide use

Plant nutrition: programmes and projects for integrated plant nutrition

Rural energy: national strategies and technology transfer for integrated rural energy development