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Sustainability of Smallholder Agriculture: Global Trade-Offs

While ovSustainableOpter the last 20 years or more, there has been tremendous interest in promoting more sustainable agriculture, and this is unquestionably an important concern for the entire world, developing and developed alike. However, it has to be recognized as a donor initiated concern which may need some revisions when applied to the Financially Suppressed developing country environment. In general, sustainable agriculture is agriculture that minimizes the use of fossil fuels for operating equipment and manufacture of Nitrogen fertilizer, while protecting the soils and other components of the natural resource environment by reducing erosion through minimizing mechanical tillage and maximizing nutrient cycling. The expectation is that this could result in a modest increase in the cost of food, which in the developed world the average person who spends less than 20% of their income for food, can fairly easily afford.

However, when applied to the financially suppressed developing world where over 80% income and/or in kind production is spent on food or home consumption, such modest increases in the cost of food can induce some major financial hardships. Thus, when applied to developing countries it might be desirable to modify the basic definition to factor in some measure of food security throughout the economy from the smallholder farmers to the national food stocks. Thus, the definition of sustainable agriculture when applied to developing countries might better be:

Sustainable agriculture is agriculture that balances the need for essential agriculture commodities of food, fiber, etc. with the necessity of protecting the natural resource environment, the foundation on which agriculture is built.

Food Security or Environmental Sustainability

Implied in this definition of sustainability is that in most developing countries there may be some trade off between national food security and environmental sustainability. The problem is if a country is not producing enough food to meet its food security needs, then it has to import foods and needs scarce foreign exchange to purchase these inputs. Since most developing countries remain agrarian they do not have the industrial base to generate the necessary foreign exchange, and such imports can place a severe financial hardship on the economy. Thus, for most developing countries the proper priority is to seek national food security before emphasizing environmental sustainability.

The problem of national food security is often linked to a ceiling price policy for the staple crops of the country such as rice in Asia and maize in Africa. Unfortunately, ceiling prices are more an effort to provide affordable food to an urban population than promote agriculture production. While there are some very legitimate national economic concerns behind the ceiling prices, they often hinder agronomic production by pushing extension input recommendations based on the maximum yield potential of the physical environment well above the economic optimal. This then renders the production credit packages non-economic and correctly reduces the willingness of farmers to adopt them and accept the extension packages in favor of more subsistence level culture practices for their staple crops. While this could be good economics, it can further reduce the environmental sustainability of smallholder communities.

Inelastic Demand

One aspect of global agriculture that has to be factored into the discussion on sustainability is the generally inelastic annual demand for agriculture goods, other then the slow upward pressure exerted by ever increasing global population. Agriculture has to meet the annual need for food and fiber each year with very limited carryover or deficit, perhaps as little as 3% either way. Over production will cause some major storage costs or risk spoilage, while under production could result in some major famine problems, and need for substantial food aid. It is true that you can substitute between the staple crops of rice, maize, wheat, potatoes and even cassava and sweet potatoes, but there is little elasticity in the total demand for the combination, although eventually it will have to shift in favor of the root and tuber crops as providing the most food energy per unit of land.

Intensive vs. Extensive Agriculture

In reviewing the global agriculture it might be possible to divide agriculture production between intensive agriculture such as that found in the USA, other developed countries, and even estates in developing countries, and extensive agriculture usually practiced by smallholder producers in developing countries. However, the question is which is more sustainable while still providing the essential agriculture produce needed by an ever growing world population, and which provides the most reasonable quality of life?

In the case of intensive agriculture it is very true that the land has to be managed with the monster tractors fully equipped with air conditioned cabs, stereo systems and a cooler chest full of nice cool drinks. In addition, intensive agriculture also consumes large amounts of chemical fertilizer which has to be either mined or produced from fossil natural gas as in the case of Nitrogen. However, they can produce considerably more produce per unit of land, and that allows more marginal land to remain out of production and reserved as recreational parks, wild life reserves or simple in land banks. Furthermore, the use of the powerful tractors also allows the incorporation of crop residues instead of burning them, or no-tillage and stubble management practices that reduces the soil erosion below the 5 t/ac/yr (11 t/ha/yr) needed to meet the USA Natural Resource Conservation Service’s (NRCS) standard to be eligible for conservation assistance.

Such farmers can maintain a quality of life consistent with middle class of a developed society.

Meanwhile, the smallholders eking out a living in developing countries may not be consuming large amount of fossil fuel or mineral fertilizer, but are they able to effectively protect their soil and natural resource base? Since the yields are relatively low it is necessary for them to collectively cultivate a larger total area, which would involve not only the land best suited for agriculture, but also a considerable amount of marginal more erosive land. Furthermore, with limited mechanization farmers have little choice but to burn the crop residues volatilizing much of the residual organic nutrients before basic land preparation. While it may be possible to concentrate enough labor and other resources into a small plot demonstration of limited tillage, the oversight in the Basic Premise or Limited Calories in the diet could become a major factor in limiting the potential to extend the demonstration to full smallholder farms, at least in a sufficiently timely manner to utilize production recommendations intended for their benefit. In reality it takes at least a 65 hp tractor equipped with triple disc plows to effectively incorporate stubble over an entire smallholder’s holdings in a sufficiently timely manner. It is also possible to demonstrate no-tillage practices on a small plot, but this could be simply shifting the major labor component from planting to weeding which will ultimately get out of control substantially reducing the yield if not resulting in fields being abandoned, when extended from small plot research/demonstrations to full farms. Even with this, many smallholders remain entrenched in poverty with arduous lifestyle, which most would leave if given the opportunity, and often do.

Some Examples

Shifting Cultivators: Shifting cultivators, to the extent they still exist, are normally operating on marginal sloping lands, and while they are not using any fossil fuels and may attempt to reduce erosion by laying the logs across the slopes, the burning of the cut biomass needed to provide sufficient weed control for a crop of upland rice in the first year, which may also water proof the soil to some extent that could encourage additional runoff and soil erosion, and thus does not protect the natural resource environment.

Subsistence Maize Farmers: The subsistence maize farmers of Africa might be slightly more sustainable than the shifting cultivators primarily because the land tends to be less steep, and they consolidate the old residue into piles for burning so they do not have as large a burn area as the shifting cultivators that reduces the relative erosion potential. However, while they still are not using any fossil fuels, they are volatilizing nutrients, and the land remains exposed to considerable erosion at least until canopy closure. Something that can easily be notice in down stream irrigation schemes by the amount of silt being deposited in the canals at the beginning of each season.

Paddy Farmers: Paddy farmers are most likely more sustainable then maize farmers, primarily because the bunds surrounding the paddies will substantially reduce the erosion potential. Most now have shifted from water buffalo to power tillers so they are consuming some fossil fuels, as well as some N fertilizer. However, they don’t have sufficient power to incorporate their crop residues so they still burn them and volatilize some of the residual nutrient they contain. Also, the reduced conditions of paddy soils are difficult for maintaining N, but the N-fixation by blue green algae will partially off set this.

Colorado Dry Land Farmers: In comparison to the above examples from the developing world, the Dry Land Farmers in Colorado may be the most sustainable. Yes, most are managing in excess of 10,000 ac. (4,000 ha) and yes they do operate massive equipment and consume the fossil fuels necessary to operate the equipment. However, they actually use relatively limited amounts of fertilizer and have a stubble management program that minimizes soil erosion, and thus may have the best balance between use of fossil fuels and protecting the natural resource base.


In the application of sustainable agriculture to both the developed and developing worlds there seem to be some trade-offs that need to be considered.

There could be trade offs in terms of the amount of mineral nutrients used, the higher yield they allow, and the total amount of land that has to be cultivated to meet an overall inelastic demand in total production vs. what can be left as open space for recreation and wildlife preserves, etc.

Also, the ability to protect the natural resource environment may depend on access to enough mechanization to effectively manage crop residues either by incorporating them or drilling through them. Without this mechanization and consumption of fossil fuels the farmers have little recourse but to burn their residues volatilizing residual nutrients and exposing the land to the forces of erosion.

Last Revised:26 March 2010

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