Extension Knowledge

Posted May 1996

Agricultural Extension for Sustainable Development

by L. Van Crowder
Agricultural Education Officer
Agricultural Extension and Education Service (SDRE)
FAO Research, Extension and Training Division


A major challenge of the 21st century will be that of implementing sustainable development and meeting the food needs of an increasing world population. Technical experts from a range of disciplines have analysed the links between population and food and one of the conclusions reached is that, in view of the limited scope and high economic and environmental costs of expanding crop land, 80 percent of food production increases will have to come from increased yields on lands already in production (IFPRI, 1994).

The overriding problem is how to improve yields, especially of basic food crops, without further deterioration of the natural resource base. Adverse environmental effects of intensified agriculture are all too visible throughout the world (soil erosion, water pollution, loss of biodiversity). The technologies and management practices that slow down degradation and protect the resource base are often not available in many regions, or are not adopted when they are available.

Based on FAO projections for food demand and supply, it is clear that national and international investment is required in:

Yet with the recession in aid funding in recent years, investment in agricultural research and extension has declined drastically. Without such investment the challenges of sustainable agricultural development and increased food production will not be met.

Extension for sustainable development

The challenge extension faces is that of promoting sustainable development while at the same time ensuring the sustainability of extension agencies themselves in the face of budget cuts. Donor funds, when available, are increasingly being directed to help countries decentralize and streamline their public extension services.

It is important to view extension for sustainable development in an institutional strengthening context, including the enhancement of extension organizations in both the public and private sectors. These organizations include extension agencies of ministries of agriculture, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and farmers organizations. The tasks facing them in achieving sustainable agricultural and rural development require that their organizational capability be strengthened. For example, farmers' organizations need to be strengthened not only to receive and provide services but as a desirable objective itself. To be sustainable they require the capability to assume autonomous management of their development goals.

The strengthening of public agricultural extension organizations is critical given that many of these organizations have suffered debt- and adjustment-induced budget cuts in the last decade. At the same time that these organizations faced serious cut-backs in funding, the national, regional and internal agricultural sectors were rapidly changing with increased emphasis on environmental concerns. The solution, however, is not to abolish public extension services but to strengthen their capability to collaborate with other organizations, both public and private, that can help develop sustainable livelihoods for rural families.

One result of public-sector budgetary constraints has been the trend towards an increased extension role for NGOs. However, many workers have low levels of formal agricultural education; less than 20 percent of NGO staff in Honduras working on agricultural projects have university training (Kaimowitz, 1993). NGOs often have little capacity for testing agricultural technologies and few ties with research organizations that do have such capacity. A low level of formal agricultural education may help in developing rapport with farmers who have little formal schooling, but it can limit the capability of NGOs to help farmers put research results into practice. There is clearly a need to link farmers' groups, NGOs, research organizations and public extension services. Such an approach recognizes that there are multiple sources of technology development and dissemination which require integration.

Integrating sustainable development themes into agricultural extension

In December, 1993, FAO held an expert consultation in Rome on the "Integration of Environmental and Sustainable Development Themes into Agricultural Education and Extension Programmes." Background papers were prepared based on 10 country case studies describing the current situation in selected agricultural education institutions and 10 case studies looking at national (public) extension systems. The agricultural extension case studies were conducted in Brazil (Paraña State), Burkina Faso, Egypt, India (Andhra Pradesh), Indonesia, Ireland, Malawi, Mexico Syria and the United States (Nebraska). Some key findings were:

1. Current environmental roles and activities

Differences were evident between case study countries in how environmental themes are translated into extension roles and activities. Some countries (e.g., Syria and Malawi) place emphasis on production and technology transfer, with environmental issues added to general extension activities. Others (e.g., Ireland and Brazil) have undergone extensive change to incorporate a mandate which highlights environmental protection. Clearly, there is a need to integrate production and environmental protection activities, demonstrating how sustainable development can be economically rational and ecologically sound.

2. Environmental content and messages

The scope of the environmental content and messages of extension agencies is large, reflecting the interests of the particular country and agency, the physical environment and the extent of environmental awareness. Overall, there appeared to be a lack of input from environmental agencies (e.g., NGOs) at the national and local levels. Also, much of the content seemed geared to "negative messages" - telling farmers what they are doing wrong instead of messages that emphasize how sustainable development benefits both farmers and the general public. The needs of women farmers appeared to be neglected despite their crucial roles in natural resource management.

3. Extent of integration

All agencies claimed that environmental concerns had been "integrated" into existing extension programmes instead of the creation of separate programmes; however, the number of issues addressed was small and in most cases environmental matters had been "added" to on-going activities. Overall, environmental concerns made up a small proportion of time, subject matter and budget of extension agencies (ranging from 5% to 25%); the number of environmental specialists was typically less than 10% of total staff. There was little evidence that potential beneficiaries (e.g., farmers) were participating in identifying environmental concerns and planning programmes.


A number of conclusions can be drawn from the experiences of the ten extension case studies. The case studies suggest that the majority of environmental issues being addressed by extension programmes are conventional topics closely linked to increasing agricultural productivity. For example, the safe and efficient use of "farm inputs" (e.g., pesticides) was the most common "environmental" topic. The implication is that the content of extension messages and practices has hardly changed and the concept of sustainable development is used more for rhetoric than reality. In fact, extension staff as well as their farm clients often seem to view environmental concerns as limiting production and adding to farm costs and restrictions. There has been a broadening of the extension agenda to include environmental topics, but primarily those subjects directly related to productivity or compliance with environmental legislation.

One question that arises is how extension agencies can be organizationally adapted to promote environmental and sustainable development themes. The experiences of a number of agencies show that these themes can be effectively addressed without major organizational changes, increases in funding or additional staff. Many environmental topics can be incorporated into existing programmes and staff can be trained in environmental matters as part of regular training. There is also considerable scope for collaboration with NGOs which can expand the reach and strengthen extension environmental activities.

Promoting sustainable agricultural development requires that extension agencies shift emphasis from the maximization of short-term production outputs, which may be attractive in economic terms but which cannot be sustained, to the promotion of technologies and practices that are productivity-enhancing without negative environmental consequences. Too often environmental concerns have been merely "tacked on" to standard programmes of increased production and technology transfer. The ultimate purpose should be promotion of environmental concerns as inseparable from the production goals of farmers.

However, it is unlikely that the promotion of sustainable agricultural development can be achieved within the confines of a single agency. This means that extension agencies will have to strengthen linkages and coordination with research organizations, environmental agencies, educational institutions, NGOs, farmers groups and others who recognize that agriculture is sustainable only when it is ecologically sound as well as economically viable.


International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Population and "Food in the Early 21st Century: Meeting Food Needs of an Increasing World Population" Washington, D.C., 1994.

Kaimowitz, D. "The Role of Non-Governmental Organizations in Agricultural Research and Technology Transfer in Latin America". World Development, Vol. 21 No. 7, 1993.

SD Homepage Back to Top FAO Homepage