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2. The concept of SARD

2.1 Definitions
2.2 Alternative views
2.3 The position of FAO
2.4 Issues of space and time

2.1 Definitions

The concept of sustainable development is an evolving one, and there are many definitions in the literature, some very similar, and others markedly different. Pezzey (1992) lists 27 definitions of sustainability and sustainable development, and there are many more.

According to the Bruntland Report (WCED 1987):

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

In 1988, and on the basis of the Bruntland Commission definition of sustainable development, the FAO Council defined SARD as:

... the management and conservation of the natural resource base, and the orientation of technological and institutional change so 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 (FAO 1989).

Both of these definitions are strongly anthropocentric - the focus is on the sustainable welfare of humans. They contrast with definitions of sustainability proposed by some ecologists. As Schuh and Archibald (1996, p. 3) note, it makes sense to concentrate on the welfare of people since any operational approach to the conservation of natural ecosystems must be rooted in the beliefs and values of society. Of course, those beliefs and

· sectoral polices at national level; and
· measures that can be taken to promote SARD at the local level.

At the end of the report, some comments are made about international aspects of policy making for SARD, values may embrace ecological and environmental concerns.

2.2 Alternative views

Notwithstanding some wide acceptance of the UNCED and FAO definitions of sustainable development and SARD, respectively, there is still plenty of disagreement about the definitions themselves and about their interpretation. Problems in finding an operational definition of sustainability are the main reason for some economists, such as Beckerman (1992), arguing that sustainability is a meaningless notion. According to Pretty (1994, p. 39):

... any attempt precisely to define sustainability is flawed. It represents neither a fixed set of practices or technologies, nor a model to describe or impose on the world. The question of defining what we are trying to achieve is part of the problem, as each individual has different objectives.... Sustainable agriculture is... not so much about a specific farming strategy as it is a systems-oriented approach to understanding complex ecological, social and environmental interactions in rural areas.

In other words, Pretty was arguing that SARD is a learning process, not a goal - a view also held by some ecologists. Others have argued that sustainable development is about sustainable human livelihoods, particularly the relief of poverty now and in the future, implying a strong focus on current and inter-generation equity.

While the views of sustainability of people from different disciplinary backgrounds are often quite different, they are best seen as complementary, not conflicting. The three legs of the sustainability 'tripod' can be viewed as representing the economic, ecological and sociological schools of thought. Without all three legs the tripod will not stand. Each leg gives support to the others. Only if all three are firmly on the ground can the whole entity be strong enough to use.


Adapted from Carley, 1994, p. 2

The human element in sustainable development can be seen as a continuing process of management and mediation among social, economic and biophysical needs that results in positive socio-economic change that does not undermine the ecological and social systems upon which communities and societies are dependent. Its successful implementation requires integrated policy, planning and social learning processes; its political viability depends on the full support of the people it affects through their governments, social institutions and private activities linked together in participative action.

From this perspective, the process of sustainable development will always precede the product - SARD is a journey rather than a destination.

2.3 The position of FAO

The FAO definition of SARD has been given above. FAO criteria for SARD are (Pétry 1995a, p. 2.3):

· Meeting the basic nutritional requirements of present and future generations, qualitatively and quantitatively, while providing a number of other agricultural products.

· Providing durable employment, sufficient income, and decent living and working conditions for all those engaged in agricultural production.

· Maintaining and, where possible, enhancing the productive capacity of the natural resource base as a whole, and the regenerative capacity of renewable resources, without disrupting the functioning of basic ecological cycles and natural balances, destroying the socio-cultural attributes of rural communities, or causing contamination of the environment.

· reducing the vulnerability of the agricultural sector to adverse natural and socio-economic factors and other risks, and strengthening self-reliance.

These four criteria might be given the shorthand names of food security, equity, responsibility (in resource use and environmental management) and resilience.

What is not explicitly mentioned in this list of criteria, although it is certainly implied, is growth. In the face of growing populations and rising human aspirations, agriculture must expand. It must do so not only to feed the growing numbers of people, but also to contribute to the reduction in poverty and deprivation by providing affordable food for the poor and productive employment for rural people. This is not to suggest that growth, by itself, is enough, but, without growth, the other criteria cannot be met. At the same time, it is clear that the growth must occur in a sustainable way, without the negative impacts on resources, the environment and income distribution that have too often happened in the past. This is surely the central challenge for SARD policy makers and planners.

2.4 Issues of space and time

2.4.1 Systems and sub-systems
2.4.2 The time dimension of SARD

2.4.1 Systems and sub-systems

As Lynam and Herdt (1989) have pointed out, 'sustainability is first defined at the highest system level and then proceeds downwards; and as a corollary, the sustainability of a system is not necessarily dependent on the sustainability of all its sub-systems.' Sub-systems may be defined in terms of scope or scale. Thus, at the highest level, what matters is the sustainability of the planet earth. Invoking the Lynam and Herdt principle implies that individual sub-systems need not all be sustainable for global sustainability to be achieved, although the requirement of global sustainability constrains the tolerable levels of unsustainability of sub-systems.

Within agriculture, clearly not all agricultural sub-systems may be sustainable. In some cases, the prevailing system may be causing a progressive depletion of the natural resource base, for example, through soil erosion. In places where agriculture was traditionally based on shifting cultivation with bush fallow, population growth and perhaps the loss of access to some land may have led to an unsustainable reduction in the fallow length. Sometimes, in such cases, it may be possible for the system to evolve, perhaps with improved and appropriate technologies, into a sustainable form of settled agriculture. In other cases, where the natural environment is too fragile, there may be no technologies consistent with preventing the degradation of the resource base and providing all the people with sustainable livelihoods.


Adapted from Munasinghe and Cruz 1995, pp, 8-9

The concept of sustainable development has evolved to encompass three major points of view: economic, social, and environmental, as shown in the figure (Munasinghe 1993)

The economic approach to sustainability is based on the concept of the maximum flow of income that could be generated while at least maintaining the stock of assets (or capital) which yields those benefits. Notions of optimality and economic efficiency underlie the allocation and use of the scarce resources. Questions arise about what kinds of capital need to be maintained (e.g., natural, manufactured and human capital) and their substitutability. There are also difficulties in valuing these assets, particularly ecological resources. The issues of uncertainty, irreversibility and catastrophic collapse pose additional difficulties.

The social concept of sustainability is people-oriented, and relates to the maintenance of the stability of social and cultural systems, including the reduction of destructive conflicts. Equity is an important consideration from this perspective. Preservation of cultural diversity and cultural capital across the globe, and the better use of knowledge concerning sustainable practices embedded in less dominant cultures, are seen as desirable. There is a perceived need for modern society to encourage and incorporate pluralism and grass-roofs participation into a more effective decision-making framework for socially sustainable development.

The environmental view of sustainable development focuses on the stability of biological and physical systems. Of particular importance is the viability of subsystems that are critical to the global stability of the overall ecosystem. Furthermore, 'natural' systems and habitats may be interpreted broadly to include man-made environments such as cities. The emphasis is on preserving the resilience and dynamic ability of such systems to adapt to change, rather than conservation of some 'ideal' static state. Natural resource degradation, pollution and loss of biodiversity reduce system resilience.

Reconciling these concepts and making them operational means that the attainment of sustainable development is a formidable task, since all three elements must be given balanced consideration. The interfaces among the three approaches are also important. Thus, the economic and social elements interact to give rise to issues such as inter-generation equity (income distribution) and targeted relief for the poor. The economic-environmental interface has yielded new ideas on valuation and internalizing environmental impacts. Finally, the social-environmental linkage has led to renewed interest in such areas as inter-generation equity (rights of future generations) and people's participation.

Such 'poverty traps' are all too common in various parts of the world. Sometimes it will be possible to find policy interventions to allow people to break out of such traps. Examples include the introduction of improved technologies, perhaps combined with asset redistribution, or the development of associated rural industries. On other occasions, no such answers may be found that could be implemented at reasonable cost, and it will be necessary for the excess population to move to other, less threatened areas. Resettlement schemes have been used to ease population pressure on land in a number of countries, such as Indonesia (although not always with the intended beneficial social and environmental benefits). While it is true that not all agricultural systems may be sustainable, now or prospectively, it is also the case, as indicated by Lynam and Herdt, that not all systems need to be sustainable. Some substitution of resources may be desirable, even necessary, for overall sustainability to be attained. For example, for a less developed country with relatively good forestry resources to impose on itself the condition that the harvest rate should be no higher than the regeneration rate may be a mistake. It would exclude the possibility of converting at least some forest areas to more productive agricultural use in crop or livestock farming. Some of the loudest calls for countries in the South to conserve their forests come from the North where large areas of forest and woodland were successfully converted to other uses long ago. It seems unreasonable to expect poorer less developed countries to deny themselves the same opportunities.

Depleting one natural resource may be consistent with the goal of sustainability in general, and SARD in particular, provided that the total stock of capital is not depleted. This might mean, say, investing in human capital to compensate for the unavoidable or considered depletion of capital inherent in a forest, a fishery or farmland. Much of the debate between economists and environmentalists about what constitutes sustainability centres on different perceptions of the extent to which such substitution is possible. Economists generally take an optimistic view of substitution possibilities and environmentalists a pessimistic one.

The need to take a global view of sustainability is also implied by the growing linkages between countries. With increase in international trade and greater mobility of people, capital and technology, it is no longer necessary for countries to aim for self-sufficiency. Indeed, to do so is to deny access to the advantages of international trade through exploiting comparative advantage (see Box 5).

2.4.2 The time dimension of SARD

The FAO definition of SARD refers to the needs of present and future generations. The time horizon for planning and policy making implicit in such a definition is very long. However, because the long-term future is so hard to foresee, there are severe operational difficulties in setting a very long time horizon for policy making and planning.

Clearly, the choice of the appropriate time scale will depend on circumstances. Longer horizons may be unavoidable for long-term processes such as forestry while in other cases the here-and-now urgency of some environmental threat may need to be dealt with on a short-term basis. It is also important to distinguish between the time period for which plans are laid, herein called the planning horizon, and the time over which the consequences of those plans may be experienced. Planning horizons of ten or fifteen years are usually about as long as it is plausible to consider. Even over such periods, the ability to account for changes in the technological, social, political and economic situation some several years into the future is very limited. In these circumstances, therefore, it is necessary to lay plans and set policies on a shorter term basis while giving due weight to the implications of today's actions for future generations. This requires the adoption of a sustainability principle in policy making and planning.


Drawn from Chambers and Conway 1992, pp. 5-8.

In calling for a new analysis, the Advisory Panel of the World Commission on Environment and Development proposed sustainable livelihood security as an integrating concept, and made it a central part of its report (WCED 1987, 2-5). The definition was:

Livelihood is defined as adequate stocks and flows of food and cash to meet basic needs. Security refers to secure ownership of, or access to, resources and income-earning activities, including reserves and assets to offset risk, ease shocks and meet contingencies. Sustainable refers to the maintenance or enhancement of resource productivity on a long-term basis. A household may be enabled to gain sustainable livelihood security in many ways - through ownership of land, livestock or trees; rights to grazing, Fishing, hunting or gathering; through stable employment with adequate remuneration; or through varied repertoires of activities.

The Panel argued that this was an integrating concept since sustainable livelihood security was a precondition for stable human population, a prerequisite for good husbandry and sustainable management, and a means of reversing or restraining destabilizing processes, especially rural to urban migration. Sustainable livelihoods were seen as a means of serving the objectives of both equity and sustain-ability.

Chambers and Conway argue that sustainable livelihoods also provide the resources and conditions for the enhancement and exercise of capabilities, by which they mean the ability to perform certain functionings, basic to what a person is capable of doing and being. It includes, for example, to be adequately nourished, comfortably clothed, to lead a life without shame, to be able to visit and entertain one's friends. The word capability thus has a wide span, with different specific meanings for different people in different situations. Using this concept, they propose the following working definition of sustainable livelihoods:

A livelihood comprises the capabilities, assets (stores, resources, claims and access) and activities required for a means of living; a livelihood is sustainable which can cope with and recover from stress and shocks, maintain or enhance its capabilities and assets, and provide sustainable livelihood opportunities for the next generation; and which contributes net benefits to other livelihoods at the local and global levels in the short and long term.

Adoption of a sustainability principle means making sure that actions taken now do not unduly limit the opportunities for people in the future to live as well or better than we live today. It means that we should not deplete the total resource stock that we pass on to the next generation. In fact, short of some massive calamity, it will take many years before global population growth can be halted and eventually reversed. Therefore we need to pass on the planet to the next more numerous generation in a more productive condition than it was when we inherited it.

The value judgements implicit in the ideas presented in the previous paragraph do not mean that we must pass on better stocks of all resources. To do so with the exhaustible resources such as fossil fuels is clearly impossible. Rather it is the total bundle of resources that needs to be improved from generation to generation. As one resource stock is run down, the total bundle can improve only if there are at least compensating improvements in the stocks of some other resources that can substitute for what is lost. In particular, human capital, embodied in such things as improved technologies and better management skills, can substitute, at least to some extent, for depletion of some natural resources. As noted above, there are differences of opinion about the extent to which such substitution will be possible in the future.


From Schuh and Archibald 1996, p. 4

There are a number of reasons for taking [a global or international perspective to the sustainability issue]. First, it is consistent with FAO's global mandate. Second, today's economy is truly globally interdependent, with all national economies linked to the international economy in one way or another. Global sustainability is thus the critical issue. Third, countries that fail to meet the conditions for global efficiency implied by this perspective sacrifice national income for their citizens and thus fail to meet the goal of sustainable development. In effect, addressing the issues of sustainability at the project level, which is a common approach, without paying attention to broader efficiency criteria, is not consistent with the theory of second best (i.e. the usual border price criteria for efficiency is in fact a second best condition when one views the global economy - editor's note)

The concern for the welfare of future generations embedded in the SARD definition may appear to be in conflict with the practice of using a positive discount rate to bring future costs and benefits to present values when planning investments such as agricultural projects. Positive discount rates may seem to discriminate against future generations because projects with costs in the distant future but benefits in the near term will be favoured. On the other hand, investments that have long-deferred benefits will not appear attractive with discounting.

The negative impact on sustainability may be particularly strong for countries and individual resource managers who face high costs of capital. Heavily indebted nations may have limited ability to borrow internationally so that the actual or opportunity cost of capital is likely to be higher than less-indebted countries. Similarly, the productivity of capital for poor farmers in less developed countries may be very high because such people are often unable to access formal markets for credit. High interest rates may mean that long-term investments, such as land improvements, cannot be afforded.

Such reasoning has led some environmentalists to argue for a zero or negative discount rate to promote sustainability. However, it is not clear how actual interest rates could be forced down to zero without savage and politically unrealistic cuts in current levels of consumption. Nor is it clear that arbitrary use of a zero discount rate for public project appraisal makes sense. It would imply accepting projects showing low returns on investment when others would be available showing positive rates of return. To waste productive investment opportunities in this way would be to deny future generations the benefits from more productive uses of scarce capital. Moreover, lowering the discount rate may also lead to the adoption of investments that are resource degrading, such as logging low-yielding or difficult areas of natural forest, or fishing already over-exploited fisheries.

The consensus of opinion is that attempts to attain sustainable development by manipulating the interest rate are misplaced. It would be desirable to solve the problems of the excessive levels of indebtedness of some countries. Similarly, there is merit in promoting the development of financial systems to make it possible to deliver credit to rural resource managers who need it at reasonable cost. But tinkering with the discount rate to try to attain inter-generation equity is inappropriate - as is the not unheard of practice of government ministries deliberately selecting low discount rates in order to put pet projects in a better light. A more satisfactory approach is to apply conventional investment criteria to all projects using normal discount rates, but also to invoke the sustainability principle in the analysis of public investment programs. That means selecting projects on the basis of discounted costs and benefits subject to the condition that the overall stock of capital (natural, artificial and human) across all investments is enhanced for future generations (Markandya and Pearce 1991).

While the implementation of such a rule may be easier said than done, at least until much improved methods of measuring and monitoring changes in capital stocks are developed and brought into use, it is an important guiding principle for policy makers. For the time being, it might be implemented using a multi-criterion decision rule in which the return to the investment is considered along with a number of operational aspects. These may include the imposition of safe minimum standards in environmental protection and limits on the rates of depletion of certain key resources for which substitution options are limited. Also, when natural capital such as mineral reserves or forests are depleted, it will be wise to make certain that other compensating investments are made.

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