Research and technology Knowledge

Posted September 1996

Technology assessment and transfer for sustainable agriculture and rural development in the Asia-Pacific Region

Australia and New Zealand | Bangladesh | China | Indonesia | Republic of Korea | Lao People's Democratic Republic | Viet Nam
From "Technology assessment and transfer for sustainable agriculture and rural development the Asia-Pacific Region: a research management perspective" (FAO, 1994)

Major trends in Asian agriculture and technology development

The Asia-Pacific Region has been on the forefront of generation and transfer of modern agricultural technologies, recording the highest agricultural production growth rate (about 4%) during the past two decades. The "Green Revolution", ushered in through the development and adoption of HYVs of rice and wheat, more than doubled the productivity of these crops. Besides, advances in soil and water management, integrated pest management, post-harvest handling and other related disciplines have synergistically contributed to the increased productivity. Similar developments have been recorded in the livestock and fisheries sectors. The Region is also using modern biotechnologies to produce genetically modified plants, animals and microbes resulting in superior-quality products, increased productivity and resistance to biotic and abiotic stresses.

However, the above gains were linked with negative influences. The Green Revolution technology has generally by-passed rainfed dryland areas and resource-poor farmers, thus exacerbating inequity. Production of some of the poor man's crops, viz. pulses, coarse grains, roots and tubers remained stagnant or even declined. The irrigation-associated problems of salinization and waterlogging have greatly negated the positive impact of expansion of irrigation. Increased genetic vulnerability, incidences of pests and diseases, excessive application of agrochemicals and environmental pollution are other serious adverse impacts and have aggravated the unsustainability problem.

Major challenges for sustainable agriculture in the Asia-Pacific region

From a standpoint of environmental significance, and this might correspond to economic significance, the loss of forest cover (annually -1.4% between 1981 and 1990) appears to be the most serious threat, followed by soil erosion due to water and wind. Erosion currently exceeds the natural soil formation by 30-40-fold. Horizontal expansion of land use seems to have reached its limits and 16% of Asia's agricultural land are considered severely degraded (loss of 50% of production potential). Furthermore, the loss of irrigated lands in India, for example, corresponds roughly to land expansion. Land degradation, in turn, is a major obstacle to intensification, which, vis-à-vis land scarcity and the lowest land/man ratio in the world (0.23 ha/person), is needed to feed a population which is over one half of the world's population and this share is increasing. The Region accounts for more than 70% of the world's agricultural population but only 30% of the world's agricultural land. Production increases during the last decades have been achieved at considerable costs to the resource base and largely by means of heavy external input use: irrigation, seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, animal breeds and feed. Yet productivity levels have not only plateaued off but even declined in the high yielding production systems which have been major contributors to the national food baskets.

Poverty, another important indicator and closely inter-related with the above, has several aspects (limited assets, landlessness, migration, etc.) and is a considerable problem in parts of the Region, though poverty is not alone responsible for resource degradation. The overall rural poverty proportion, according to FAO estimates, was declining between 1980 and 1987 (51.8% vs. 47.7%), with the total number of rural poor increasing (495 million vs. 506 million), though, and a large majority living in Asia (63.2% in 1980 vs. 62.6% in 1987). The Region accounts for about three-fourths of the world's malnourished people. These figures exclude China. Real incomes in several countries of the Region are declining, the ratio of per capita incomes in China and India, for instance, in relation to European countries widened from 1:2 towards the end of the last century to 1:70 currently. Population growth poses a formidable challenge to rural agricultural and non-agricultural employment. Demographic pressure, furthermore, is most intensive in low-potential areas with a majority of poor people and threatens the fragile resource base. Land pressure emerges as the common denominator of agricultural sustainability in the Region and intensification of production systems has to be advanced in ways that do not further undermine but rather enhance the resource base and preserve the environment.

Definition of the major concepts

Some of the major concepts that require a definition are Technology assessment for sustainable agriculture and rural development is defined here as a comprehensive approach to examine the actual or potential impact of technology applications on certain sustainability issues and second order consequences and to facilitate the development and use of technological interventions according to location-specific constraints and objectives. To render the somewhat elusive concept of sustainability applicable to problem-solving, a methodological approach was suggested that builds on the description of agro-ecological zones, production systems, resource endowments and their management, and socio-economic environments with special reference to rural development. The conceptualization, collection and collation of unsustainability indicators and critical areas shall eventually lead to definable objectives and technological needs and options. It is well recognized that the development of technology assessment capacities may imply a considerable demand for institution-building and establishment of sectoral linkages (public and private sector as well as intra-sector linkages) in order to make use of technology assessments and to allow for transfer and appropriate use of technologies for sustainable development.

Technology transfer was taken to mean a system under which various inter-related components of technology, namely, "hardware" (materials such as a variety), "software" (technique, know-how, information), humanware (human ability), "orgaware" (organizational, management aspects) and the final product (including marketing) are rendered accessible to the end-users (farmers). The system also includes institutional capacity for technology adoption, adaptation or rejection, constituting a matrix of technology component and institutional capacities for absorbing technologies (Table 1). Thus, technology transfer has both functional and institutional meanings. A technology transfer programme would be considered effective when there is minimal or no gap between the potential and realised impacts of the technology. It means that monitoring of the adoption or adaptation of technologies is an integral part of the technology transfer system. Transfer of technology must therefore be preceded and succeeded by technology assessment, reasserting that technology transfer and assessment are complementary processes.

Table 1: Technology transfer and adaptation matrix for a given objective such as increased rice yield or superior quality vaccine
Institutional Capacity for technology Technology components
Hardware, Tangibles Techniques, Software Knowledge, "Humanware" Organization, Management Product, Commercialization
Choice, Identification       
Acquisition, Negotiation and Transfer       
Generation, Upgrading, Adaptation, Invention       
Reproduction, Capital goods, Manufacture       
Application, Maintenance      

One of the prerequisites for effective technology transfer is the appropriateness of the technology. Appropriate technology refers to a technology package which must be technically feasible, economically viable, socially acceptable, environment-friendly, consistent with household endowments, and relevant to the needs of farmers. The concept is a dynamic one and the elements of appropriateness will vary over time and space. Thus technologies are subject to adjustment, change and evolution.

As regards sustainability, the underlying definition is the one adopted by the FAO Council in 1988:

Sustainable 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 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.
It is understood that the definition of sustainability varies between countries. A common denominator should be, however, not to compromise increased productivity.

Operationalizing the concepts

The fairly straightforward methodological approach to technology assessment suggested above involves several "sub-concepts" that need definition and have to be agreed upon in order to share information1 among countries/subregions/regions. The approach is to serve, eventually, the delineation of homologous zones for technology transfer and development of appropriate technologies in a sustainability context.

Agro-ecosystems and production systems characterization, and identification of unsustainability indicators and sustainability determinants for Agro-Ecological Zones (AEZs) and systems

There are several approaches to the agro-ecological classification of environments, both within and outside the international agricultural research system. Agro-ecological zones are commonly described by a combination of climatic and soils characteristics, with spatial and temporal variability, e.g. specific biotic or abiotic stresses, only partially accounted for. On the other hand, the recommendation domains of Farming Systems Research closely define climate, land type and socio-economic conditions. Keeping in mind major land use patterns and resource potentials in the Asia-Pacific Region without complicating the concept to an extent that renders it unmanageable, major agro-ecological zones and production systems/commodities and related unsustainability indicators are the following.

Table 2. AEZs, production systems and related unsustainability indicators in Asia-Pacific
AEZ Prod. Systems/
Unsustainability Issues Unsustainability Indicators
Arid drylands (500 mm) Ruminants/pastures
Coarse grains
Short season legumes
Soil degradation
Water conservation and use
Biomass production
Low soil fertility
Low soil organic matter
Soil erosion & desertification
Soil cover/biomass loss
Water quality/stress
Yield fluctuations Poverty
Cropping of submarginal lands
Changes of herd composition
Semi-arid drylands (500-1000 mm) Ruminants
Food grains
Fruit trees
Input use
Irrigation management
(as above)
Irrigated lands Rice-based
Wheat based
Input use
Irrigation management
Weeds, pests & diseases
Salinity & waterlogging
Micro-nutrient leaching & imbalances
Reduced organic matter
Excessive use of agrochemicals
Lowered water tables
Uncertain water availability
Methane and nitrous oxide emissions
On-farm water management capacity
Plateauing or declining yield levels
Semi-humid lands (1000-1500 mm) Food grains (rice)
Cash crops
Fruit trees
Roots and tubers
Integrated systems
Input use Focus on cereals
Inadequate systems integration
Lack of market development
Availability and management of water
Reduced ground cover
Soil erosion
Nutrient leaching
Acidification and alkalinity
Pests and diseases
High input use
Soil and water pollution
Prices and income
Humid lands (>1500 mm) Plantation crops
Roots and tubers
(see semi-humid lands) (see semi-humid lands)
Loss of biodiversity
Highlands (average temp. 20 degrees C) Potato Maize
Medicinal plants
Land tenure
Accessibility & marketing
Limited technological choice
Loss of forest cover
Run off/soil erosion
Reeduced water retention capacity
Soil acidity
Loss of biodiversity
Downstream flooding and sedimentation
Highlands (average temp. >20 degrees C) Plantation crops Spices Roots and tubers Horticulture Rice, wheat Dairy cattle Agroforestry Coffee, tea Ornamental plants Shifting cultivation (as above) (as above) Incidence of shifting cultivation
Coastal lands Rice-based
Cash crops
Intregrated tree/animal systems
Lack of technologies
Inadequately integrated systems
Competition for land
Natural disasters
Salt water intrusion
Rising seas levels
Crop damages
Pests and diseases
Reduced organic matter
Reduction of mangrove cover
Islands (volanic and atoll) Fruit trees Roots and tubers
Integrated coconut/ruminant systems
Natural disasters
Soil fertility
Global warming
Lack of technologies
Population pressure
(as above)

Minimum data sets for the characterization of AEZs and resource endowments (bio-physical and socio-economic), i.e. the environment under which a technology is supposed to operate, were defined as follows:

Definition of objectives for sustainable agriculture and identification of available and needed technological options (information/management-based and material) to achieve these objectives

The definition of objectives is essentially a management tool. Quantified location-specific goals are necessary to measure the degree of success in sustainability-enhancing interventions. Overall objectives of technological interventions for sustainable agriculture can be summarized as food security and risk resilience, environmental compatibility, economic viability, and social acceptability. Different AEZs and production systems, however, require location-specific and tailored solutions. In drylands, objectives of technological interventions include diversification of production and bio-diversity conservation, soil and water conservation, crop/livestock/tree integration, and, where necessary, area rehabilitation. Where possible, a rather drastic intervention is irrigation and thus a change of the agro-ecological zone. Irrigation, however, requires proper management of water supply and drainage to counteract soil salinization.

In subhumid and humid areas, besides soil and bio-diversity conservation, a major objective should be the management of soil acidity and phosphorus fixation. There appears to be scope for the expansion of irrigation in Asia to reduce pressure on upland areas with considerable migration, but the financial implications of irrigation expansion are becoming highly severe.

Irrigated lands are prone to salinization and objectives should be water use efficiency and water resource protection. The decline in yields must be arrested and even reversed through integrated management of nutrients, soil, water and biotic stresses under intensive production systems. It was recognized that these and assured rainfall lowlands provide the bulk of the food and agricultural products.

In highlands, the risk of erosion needs to be checked through conservation measures and afforestation. Of particular interest are second order consequences that may occur at some distance from the production systems, e.g. downstream flooding and sedimentation.

Coastal areas and islands face particular problems of rising sea levels/salt water intrusion and objectives can be defined at the level of global changes, e.g. reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

Based on the analysis above, there are several available and needed generic technologies for the AEZs and unsustainability problems, keeping in mind the distinction between information/management- based and material/input-based technologies.

Choice of qualitative and/or quantitative criteria and indicators for priority technologies

Quantified objectives are, besides providing performance standards for interventions, useful for a prioritization of projects or programmes. Ideally, a quantification of technological effects would enable assessments to be based on cost/benefit analyses. Is is recognized that research into cause-effect relationships is necessary to support such analyses. The underlying principle of research priority setting is the expected economic return to investments. Therefore, the economic significance of a commodity tends to determine its ranking on the research agenda. Technology for sustainability is somewhat more difficult to value: neither the costs nor the long-term returns (sustainability, by definition, implies rather long-term than short-term returns) of specific technological interventions can be sufficiently quantified at the moment. Against this back-drop, a set of criteria applicable to the prioritization of technology could be identfied.

Interventions should:

Recommendations for technology assessment and transfer

Based on the criteria listed above, a number of recommendations for technology assessment and transfer could be derived and follow-up action was urged upon FAO, donor agencies and national programmes. The paramount constraint to effective technology assessment is a dearth of information. Another major handicap is the paucity of trained manpower to conceptualize the theme, develop methodologies and indicators and use them in technology assessment, development and transfer. The problem is severest in the case of remote countries (e.g. Pacific islands) and also Indo-China. Most countries in the Asia-Pacific Region, and indeed the world, do not have explicit policies in place to conduct technology assessments. This situation is aggravated by a lack of suitable holistic methodologies for monitoring and evaluating agricultural systems which results in a limited understanding of sustainability trends. The development of assessment capacities encompasses both local as well as regional/global issues as there are often second order consequences occurring at some distance from the site of production.

There is emphasis on hand and glove relationship between agriculture and environment. Besides, economic, social and political factors intimately impact agriculture. The increasingly complex world of agriculture thus calls for an integrated approach to be efficiently productive, equitable and sustainable. The governments should develop policy settings to meet this demand. Technology assessment should become an important intervention for research and technology development geared to sustainable agricultural and rural development. It was noted that most of the countries lack the capacity for formulation of appropriate policies and FAO should assist the countries in this regard by sensitizing and enhancing the capacities of policy makers through trainings/seminars and increasing access to information. Policy issues such as intellectual property rights, biosafety, technology standards, incentive structures, trade and pricing, institutional support, and environmental accounting should be addressed to.

To close the gap of information on and to develop desired human resources and institutional systems for sustainable agriculture in the Region, FAO, in close collaboration with other international and national programmes, organize training programmes, workshops and information exchange to sensitize and train extensionists, researchers and farmers to further develop and apply guidelines, methodologies and indicators leading to sustainable agricultural production.

here are, however, considerable technological capacities available in the Region. Some mature NARS and the CGIAR and other international Centres in the Region offer, through regional co-operation and networking, substantial scope for synergies, considering that the Asia-Pacific countries share many of the AEZs, production systems and resource endowments. Given the diversity of development stages in the Region, there are numerous on-the-shelf technologies awaiting assessment for use in other countries.

National capabilities in technology assessment and transfer are critical. The development of such capabilities should be supported initially by FAO and NARS through case studies to generate inventories of resource endowments and unsustainability indicators for (a) given AEZ(s). Of particular interest would be agricultural systems associated with deforestation, besides other basic questions of land use (e.g. agriculture vs. in-situ conservation of biodiversity and agriculture in marginal lands). A suitable methodology should be developed to assess trends in sustainability of such competing land use systems and to identify technologies appropriate for monitoring the trends and for promoting sustainable agriculture.

A complementary effort to the case study approach should be made by FAO to develop and establish inventories of available technologies relevant to productivity and sustainability in agriculture. Initial activities should concentrate on pilot projects, focused on selected technologies representing the range of generic technologies. The information required from inventories should pertain to sources of technology, method(s) of application, environmental friendliness and risks, and broad terms under which technology may be acquired. Attention should be given to intellectual property rights and technologies ready for commercialization. The accessibility and utility of inventories should be monitored by individual countries by a survey of inventory users. Assistance should be provided by FAO and other donors for adaptive trials to support technology adoption.

The majority of the farm holdings in the Asian countries are small and suggested that technologies for them should be information-based, encompassing low use of purchased inputs, improved efficiency of manual labours, especially women, and integrated farming system. Appropriate policy interventions to improve receiving and delivery capacity of small farmers are essential for adoption of new technologies. Appropriate land-tenure system, such as land-to-tiller, would enhance adoption of technology for increased sustainability. Recognizing that, in several countries of the Region, specific programmes focused on technology transfer to small farmers have been in vogue, that such experiences should be critically analyzed and shared with other countries.

Rainfed/dryland, highlands, coastal lowlands and islands are generally endowed with fragile resource base, have low productivity and the majority of the inhabitants are resource-poor and are obliged to eke out an existence in harsh biophysical and socio-economic environments. The task of resource management is very complex and the risk taking capacity of such areas and their people is very low. Therefore, sustainability matters assume very high, if not higher, importance than productivity per se. Risk-resilience and linkage mechanisms specifically designed for resource-poor farmers in harsh environments should be a prime consideration while developing and transferring technologies for such settings.

In order to address unsustainability problems in agriculture in humid and sub-humid lands, the development, evaluation and adoption of new and available technologies should focus on the promotion of integrated agro-economic or market-driven systems. Such integration should consider crop production, horticulture, vegetables, use of ponds, aquaculture, ruminant and non-ruminant livestock, marketable products, and the stability of market outlets.

Post-harvest technologies are a priority area for sustainable agricultural production and growth. It is recommended that the development of post-harvest technologies focus on:

On-farm conservation of biodiversity be addressed, including the use of indigenous knowledge. A project should be developed in resource-poor highlands or rainfed drylands, in an appropriate area with richness of biodiversity. Through the project, a strategy should be developed for conservation and economic implications of appropriate interventions (e.g. compensation to the farmer for loss of land).

Given the complex multidisciplinary and intersectoral nature of technology development and transfer, effective linkages among concerned sectors and players should be strengthened/established and managed for attaining sustainable agricultural and rural development. Although different types of links will be required for different types of technology, the most important linkages envisaged are: research- extension-farmer, private-public, regulatory agencies-policy-R&D and agriculture-industry-environment. Based on informed judgement, regulatory agencies in individual countries should develop mechanisms and national guidelines and procedures to procure need-based technologies and to use them safely. FAO and other international agencies should establish mechanisms to help recipient countries to obtain protected technologies and to develop harmonized international biosafety standards for safe introduction or development and release of genetically engineered organisms.

Technology transfer approaches vary according to technology packages and target groups. Recognizing that there are serious gaps in technology transfer under certain systems, there is a need to re- evaluate the technology transfer approach. That the transfer of technology (TOT) approach and the training and visit (T&V) method were based on extension of knowledge and "know-how" and were effective only under simplistic, predictable and controlled settings. Under complex and veritable settings of rainfed agriculture, these straight-jacket approaches were rather unsuccessful, and recommended that farming systems and participatory approaches should be followed under such settings. The Beyond Farmer First approach is the latest paradigm of technology transfer. Under this approach, farmers' needs and priorities are put first and farmers participate in research and extension. The shift in the approach calls for professional, institutional and policy-related changes and that for this approach to succeed, human resources development should be strengthened and attitudinal and behavioral barriers would have to be removed. This approach emphasizes on learning and skill development rather than on knowledge and technology per se which are generally contextual in time and space, hence limited in their transferability.

To facilitate the establishment of joint ventures and partnerships of various kinds, it may be expedient to foster regional/sub-regional technology assessment capacity through regional or sub-regional clearing-house or technology assessment center(s). Existing capacities, such as the Asia-Pacific Association of Agricultural Research Institutions (APAARI) and other networks and institutions, indeed abundant in the region, could be pooled. The suggested regional network, involving sub-regional networks and linking with other networks in the region, would promote cooperation and information exchange, and primarily address sustainability problems, food production and alleviation of poverty. The structure of the network should ensure strong linkages between disciplines and sectors. 1 It will be necessary to generate much of this information in the course of pilot programmes, since the knowledge of the factors determining sustainability and the associated indicators is limited. It is precisely the latter area that could emerge as the most important area for agricultural research in the future.

SD Homepage Back to Top FAO Homepage