Policy and integrated management Environment

Posted March 1996

Sustainability: the Challenges in Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

extracted from "Strategies for sustainable agriculture and rural development (SARD) - new directions for agriculture, forestry and fisheries" (FAO 1994)


In the 1980s, average income declined in 46 of the 82 developing countries for which figures were available. In the period 1970 to 1985, the numbers of the very poor increased from 944 million to 1156 million. In both Africa and Latin America, the percentage of poor people increased during the 1980s, from 41 to 47 percent.

As many as 70 million people, mostly from developing countries, are working (legally or illegally) in other countries. Each year more than a million people migrate permanently, with almost the same number seeking asylum. The number of refugees rose from 2.8 million in 1976 to 17.3 million in 1990. Migration has created tensions in many parts of the world, and immigrants have been attacked in several countries. The effects of these trends can been seen in:

The challenge of sustainable agriculture and rural development (SARD) is essentially to provide solutions that counteract these trends. The key is to increase incomes and improve lifestyles for the rural poor who constitute a large percentage of the populations of most developing countries.

One way of doing this is to create synergies between on-farm and off-farm economic activities. Agriculture, forestry and fisheries are characterized by myriad production units operating in diverse natural and socio-economic environments. Initiatives must be strategically coupled with growth in related economic activity and employment, as farm, forest and fishery products pass through the processing and manufacturing sectors, gaining value as they move towards the consumer. This task is urgent and complex, especially in the developing countries where agriculture faces under-development, fragile environments and resource degradation, as well as some of the environmental and socio-economic problems associated with the over-intensification of agriculture and fisheries in industrialized countries.

Translating the concept of SARD into strategies and action requires governments to confront the challenges posed by population growth, food security and poverty, the limited availability of agricultural land, and issues related to national policies and international trade.

Major challenges to agriculture

Population growth

Despite recent evidence of slowing growth rates in some regions of the world, the global population is projected to increase by almost 2 billion between 1989-90 and 2010, all but 6 percent of which will be in the developing countries, where some 20 percent of the population is already suffering from chronic undernutrition. Given future levels of population growth, world food output will have to more than triple over the next 50 years if all of the projected 9 587 million people are by then to receive an adequate diet.

Food security and poverty alleviation

Failure to alleviate poverty is the main cause of undernutrition in a world which has had little difficulty in increasing overall food production to meet growth in effective demand. In most developing countries, however, increasing food production is one of the principal tools used to combat poverty because most of the poor depend on agriculture for employment and income. One of the major problems is thus not that the world cannot produce more food but that the population that depends on agriculture for a living continues to grow.

Achieving sustainable food security is an important and difficult goal for SARD. It means much more than increasing farm productivity and profitability while minimizing environmental impacts. It requires a spectrum of action from the level of the household to the level of the global economy.

At the household level, improving food security will mean improving access to credit, rural incomes, women's status, dietary intakes and systems of food distribution. It will mean reducing agricultural waste. At the policy level, it will mean a more equitable distribution of land and other resources, and especially effective action about population growth in relation to carrying capacity. At the macro-economic level, it will mean focusing domestic policy more accurately on the needs of the poor and the hungry, and improving the terms of international trade.

Land and water scarcity

FAO's study "Agriculture: Toward 2010" projects that, between 1988-90 and 2010, the expansion in arable land in the developing countries, excluding China, will be about 93 million ha, an increase of 12 percent over the 760 million ha in use in the base period. About three-quarters of this increase will be in sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean, because many countries in Asia and the Near East are already using nearly all their potential arable land. Cropping intensity is projected to increase from 79 to 85 percent, and increases in average crop yields will account for two-thirds of the projected growth in crop production. The increase in arable land devoted to crop production excludes additional land needed for human settlements, industry and infrastructure, and for shifting agriculture and grazing which escape official statistics.

These global increments in land used for crop production appear relatively modest compared to that already used (760 million ha) and to rainfed land with some crop production potential (2.5 billion ha, excluding China). However, most land with some crop production potential faces production constraints - of slope, soil type or climate. It may be under forest cover or be providing another environmental service. Its use will therefore involve a trade-off.

Water scarcity is a constant constraint for countries with arid and semi-arid climates. Of major concern is the lack of storage facilities and a continuing decrease in the rate of expansion of irrigated land in developing countries while population growth rates are about 1.8 percent per year. Cross-sectoral national water strategies and policies are urgently needed in water-scarce countries. These will require consideration of the opportunity costs of water in different uses and pricing systems that take account of the economic costs of water supply, rather than the numerous forms of water subsidy that currently exist and which encourage profligate use, even in dry countries.

National policies and international trade

Developing countries generally lack the financial and technical resources needed to invest efficiently in SARD. Part of the problem lies in the measures adopted by industrialized countries to subsidize and protect agriculture. At the same time, the policies of some developing countries do not encourage saving, investment, employment and income generation in support of sustainable rural development.

The agricultural policies of industrialized nations tend to stimulate surplus production. Governments then often shield domestic producers by moving surpluses onto the world market at subsidized prices. For this and other reasons, the products exported by developing countries have been declining in price for some time. During the period 1986 to 1990, adverse terms of trade are estimated to have cost Africa $50 billion in reduced revenue from the export of commodities. These trends make it harder for rural people in developing countries to run their farms profitably and earn reasonable incomes. They also make it more difficult for developing countries to pay for their imports.

In addition, developing countries frequently pursue domestic policies unfavourable to the agricultural and rural sectors, on the premise that rural areas are best utilized as a source of cheap labour, of revenues for use in other sectors (through high taxation of farm produce or exploitation of natural resources, such as trees or minerals) or of foreign exchange (through cash crop production or export of raw materials). These policies under-value natural resources and fail to internalize the costs of environmental degradation. The reaction of farmers to these policies usually leads to further degradation of natural resources.

Major challenges to forestry

Forests are an important part of the environment and are the home of more than 200 million people in the tropics. Forests conserve mountain watersheds, soil and water; protect land from wind and water erosion; help prevent desertification; modulate climate; and sequester carbon thereby buffering the global warming attributed to increasing levels of atmospheric CO2. In coastal areas, mangroves protect the land against erosion by the sea as well as providing breeding grounds for fish and shrimps.

Forests have been seen by most planners and decision-makers as a source of one product: wood. Yet forests and trees provide many other products such as foods, medicines, materials for handicrafts, spices, resins, gums, latexes, fibres, dyes and animal fodder. Non-wood forest products multiply opportunities for entrepreneurship. The wildlife in forests contributes to food supplies and supports a substantial tourist industry.

The main threats to forests include rapid deforestation and degradation in tropical and other developing countries (the estimated rate of forest depletion in the tropical zone in the decade 1981-1990 was 15.4 million hectares) and quality decline in temperate and boreal forests. The main immediate cause of tropical deforestation is agricultural expansion in all its forms, from shifting cultivation to cattle ranching; the need for this stems, in turn, from high population densities and growth rates.

The issue of forest depletion in the developing world is fundamentally about poverty, under-development and population growth. The success with which these challenges are met will ultimately determine the fate of the tropical half of the world's forests. The problem cannot be solved from within the forestry sector alone.

In most tropical countries, forest clearing is virtually unstoppable at current levels of economic development. What can be done, however, is to manage deforestation and degradation by keeping it in line with land-use plans and by maintaining sufficient trees and woodland within farming systems. Residual forests must be brought under sustainable management to produce large enough incomes to provide real alternatives to agriculture.

Controversy surrounds these issues. According to some environmentalists, the focus of management should be on preservation of forest resources. However, these people fail to realize that the conservation of an area of forest land will only be successful if the local people who normally use the forest (for hunting, fodder, agriculture or gathering medicinal herbs), are compensated for their foregone benefits. Thus, activities such as eco-tourism, which aim to conserve the environment and at the same time provide local populations with an alternative income, should be promoted.

Major challenges in fisheries

In the field of fisheries, the principal challenge lies in organizing and stimulating production in order that per caput supply of fish as food does not decline.

In the capture fisheries sector problems arise due to overfishing and costs of catch for some species. In developing countries these issues are complicated by the low-income of artisanal fishermen who are not in a position to maintain sustainable fishing practices to protect future generations, and a lack of enforcement of any regulations in such small outlying communities. Although there is growing pressure to ban certain types of fishing which threaten biodiversity, such bans cannot function alone but must be reinforced by policies which concentrate on selective but economically viable fishing and which include research into unexploited oceanic stocks e.g. mesopolagics and squids. Likewise in the field of coastal fisheries, policies need to be developed which ensure both a sustainable and optimal supply of fish.

A special effort should be made in the aquaculture section to provide high-volume/low-value species which will give an assured supply of affordable fish, bearing in mind that the inputs needed in commercial aquaculture are also used for agriculture or livestock production. However, such aquaculture practices which provide affordable fish have to be closely monitored for possible pollution problems.

In the field of international fish trade, the danger lies in the increase of trade in the low cost fish which would provide greater exports for fish meal at the cost of depriving the poor of a basic food. It is important that fishery managements systems which take account of both the needs of fishermen and environmental security are developed. In this respect, it is essential that greater resources are made available to study this problem scientifically.

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