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Agronomic research strategy and the uncertain challenge of sustainability

J.R. Anderson

Agricultural Policies Division, Agriculture and Rural Development Department, World Bank,Washington, DC 20433

Summary. Many difficult questions are nowadays thrown at agronomists such as: What should the contemporary concern for sustainability mean for agronomic research? The answers are surely not easy to come up with or defend but responses must be sought as part of the debate in the political economy of sustainability and similar green concepts. The present essay is a modest stroll through these thorny woods, passing such copses as the situation of and outlook for food and fibre demand and supply, the state of natural agricultural resources, presently and prospectively including the many intrinsic uncertainties, and the state of global agricultural research, especially pertaining to agronomy. Before emerging from the trees, some strategic implications for agronomists are sought, whether they work in less-developed or more-developed countries and finally some conclusions are tentatively reached.

Agronomists' changing responsibilities and challenges

The challenges faced by agronomic research workers are manifold, evolving and continuing, even if progress has not proved to be particularly continuous. Just when reasonable advance seems to have been made on some important problems, along comes new criticism from some peripheral group, whether it be economists saying that the proposed innovations are insufficiently profitable or environmentalists arguing that claimed advances are insufficiently `sustainable'. C' est la vie in the world of agronomy. So it is that our Conference organisers have seen fit to raise the spectre of sustainability at a couple of points in the program. And so it is in many contemporary fora around the world, including the meetings of and in the institutes of the CGIAR and discussions in many national programs, especially those under the heavy guiding hand of a concerned donor. Even the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFFRI) has begun a research program on environmental and sustainability aspects of agricultural technology! Certainly, the topic is a hot albeit vexed one in of the development community, including such major actors in it as the World Bank.

As we look towards the future of agriculture in supplying the growing global needs of food and fibre, there are many interconnected considerations impinging on the productivity advances that will be directly dependent on the contribution of agronomists, both in research and extension, and the ability of the natural resources of the world to provide their expected continuing services. Most notable in this respect is the state of the world's soils, both presently and prospectively, given inevitable further agricultural intensification and the increasing encroachment on yet undeveloped natural resources that often feature soils more 'fragile' than those presently exploited for arable agriculture. All these concerns warrant the most serious attention. Broaching such 'big' issues obliges observers to a position of humility if not anxiety. Fortunately, I am not alone in seeking wisdom on such matters and I have the considerable good fortune of being able to draw on several studies initiated by colleagues around the world on these highly interrelated themes.

Before proceeding to matters of substance and concreteness, two definitional points must be address. Why strategy? What is sustainability? By strategy it is meant that people, in this case research agronomists in particular, lay out their perceptions of the reality in which they are working, the priorities that seem relevant, the objectives that should be achieved and thus presumably are achievable, and a detailed plan of action for endeavouring to achieve such objectives. All this is much easier said than done but I am sure we are all too aware that we strive to survive in an era of strategic planning and thinking. The question of what sustainability really is in this context, notwithstanding the Den Bosch Declaration and the attendant kilopages of documentation (5), is a somewhat more challenging one to address, and for the moment, let us live with the conversational use of this word as meaning something that is able to be sustained (presumably with some conditions attached) and we'll defer a more considered treatment of the more complex notion of sustainability that must necessarily underpin any careful work in this domain.

Global trends of relevance to agronomy

It has been wisely observed that the future will be like the past because in the past the future was like the past. And this truism surely carries over to the trends that surround the future of agriculture (4). Real energy prices will continue to increase and this will enter into the cost of production of many of the resources consumed in agriculture. Thus the price that farmers pay for nitrogenous fertilisers and most pesticides, for example, will continue to increase and farmers will be inspired to make resource-saving adjustments accordingly, with the help, of course, of new technical insights from agronomic research. Just how these particular movements in factor use are played out in practice, depends more on relative than absolute prices. Thus one has to look also at the likely trends in the real prices for the key factors of production in agriculture such as land, labour, and capital equipment. The forces at work in these various markets differ but it seems likely, with the same truism driving us into future, that the real cost of capital equipment, especially when corrected for quality improvements arising through new mechanical and electronic technology, will continue to decline, and so we can expect increasing mechanisation of agriculture in most parts of the world.

Substitutability is one important thing but intensification itself also cannot be overlooked as a strategic research consideration. As noted, the more favoured areas are bound to be farmed more intensively and this means that, if agronomic work is to lead farmer practice, it must accommodate intensive agronomic practices, perhaps examined at intensity levels considerably above contemporary norms. Contrawise, in the less-favoured areas, it will be part of the sophisticated challenge facing agronomists that they learn also to be ever-more efficient at low levels of intensity and at levels that will probably reduce over time, as the extensive margin of agriculture becomes variously further exploited and degraded and even perhaps more marginal. Thus research agronomists, in the large, will face greater challenges because of pressures to work over expanding ranges of intensification. This has obvious implications for research costs, which, other things held constant, will be greater than for research activities directed at the more intermediate levels of intensification that have traditionally characterised most agricultural production.

A major opportunity for agronomists lies in seeking and refining biological innovations that can effectively replace contemporary inputs that have their roots in the chemical, particularly petrochemical industry. Thus vertical resistance to pests and diseases in improved germplasm will play such an important role that plant breeders, increasingly assisted by molecular biologists, are bound to be major actors in this aspect of agricultural development, and will do so on a continuing basis given the continuing evolution of pathogens and pesticides. Integrated pest management - perhaps better termed 'integrated resistance risk management' - although gathering considerable momentum in both more- and less-developed countries is bound to be a really major player, especially as all parties concerned become more aware of the fundamental inadequacies of the 'more focused' approaches that failed to recognise the wider biology of pest management.

As economic growth proceeds, the opportunity cost of time of people increases and generally the cost of labour increases and so there is a ubiquitous substitution of machines and other purchased inputs for labour. The real price of labour in many parts of the less-developed world does not face such a clear future because this depends crucially on the success of economic development and, notwithstanding the optimism of some development agencies such as the World Bank, it seems that the prospect for some of the poorest countries may not be very attractive. In these countries, high population growth rates combined with weak institutional structures and sometimes poor resource bases conspire to predispose a more or less miserable future, unless there are great changes in the arrangements for sharing wealth internationally. In such nations, the real price of labour may well continue to decline, at least for the foreseeable future, and in these cases there will be a reverse substitution of labour for other inputs, especially capital items.

A key factor of production that is perhaps more important than others in these trends is the real cost of land. The major driving force here is the increasing scarcity of good quality agricultural land, as the world continues to develop at increasingly costly margins. Although it is a gross simplification, most of the good quality agricultural land, especially in Asia and Europe, has been either already committed to agriculture or has been uncommitted and had agriculture displaced by 'higher value' activities, although these are not always more productive per se, such as the urban encroachment on agricultural land, particularly valley-bottom lands in the major watersheds of the world. Overall, then, it seems certain that the real price of land will trend upwards and intensification of land use will increase where this is feasible. This is not very readily feasible, at least with foreseeable technologies, in many of the more marginal agricultural environments. Thus the intensification will be concentrated on the better quality lands, notwithstanding the present intensive development of many such areas.

It is not the present intention here to infer that agronomists need to become specialists in economic futurology in order to plan their priorities but it is contended that they will be more efficient in contributing to the solution of future problems if they are sensitive to likely broad trends in the general agricultural environment. To comment at a high level of generality, it is important that agronomic research be of assistance in helping farmers make substitutions in their resource-use patterns in response to changing price regimes and to emerging technological opportunities.

At the experimental level, this means that design structures should be such as to estimate parameters of factor substitution rather than the merely estimates of fixed combinations of factors, perhaps held at their traditional economically efficient relative levels. This necessitates multifactor experimentation rather than essentially single factor perhaps involving a fixed ration of resources used at different intensities. Multifactor designs that permit estimation of substitution possibilities are intrinsically more expensive than sets of experiments involving single factors but such is the price of relevance that this imperative demand for information must eventually be met (1).

Uncertainty and sustainability in agronomic research

Another general principle that comes out of recognising the imperfect knowledge we have about various phenomena is that, when we are not too sure what to do, it is often best not to do too much lest we err on the side of investing in something over which we have regrets. This has several dimensions and can be applied to any particular field of agriculture. For example, it is easy to rush into soil conservation interventions that could prove expensive and yet achieve little (2). While lands continue to degrade through natural and human-driven processes, things may not look well but they could be much worse if, as well as suffering loss of the only-slowly renewable natural-resource base, other socially valuable resources were misdirected to unproductive purposes.

So it is with sustainability-oriented agricultural research. As already noted, work so described is certainly a strong and pervading fashion at the moment but the question is: Will such concern for sustainability per se be sustained? As commentators and observers become more familiar with the general notion of substitutability of resources, perhaps the panic-like concern for trying to keep all existing natural resources in their current level of productive performance will diminish, and may even evaporate. Accordingly, entries into long-term research under the broad heading of sustainability might appropriately be deliberately cautious, recognising that many such research programs will be long in gestation and may have the effect of crowing out other possibly shorter term R&D activities that will yield earlier rewards and perhaps also contribute to enhanced substitutability for the resources that may be at risk of degradation.

Such trade-offs in the temporal domain face us all in most of our important decisions. This fact of life does not make them any simpler to deal with in practice, and techniques that are both helpful and theoretically appropriate to dealing with the issues are not yet as developed and refined as could be wished (8). It thus behoves us to seek to improve these methods so that they become more operational, and thus of real assistance in grappling with the issues that can hardly be handled effectively and professionally by subjective and possibly emotion-driven consideration.

Agricultural research has always been concerned with the more efficient use of resources, whether this be natural and only slowly renewable resources such as soils, non-renewable resources such as energy from fossil fuels, human resources that are only renewable in globally polluting ways or other scarce resources of varying degrees of renewability. Likewise, agronomists have always been concerned about the scarcity of the resources that they endeavour to manipulate for productive purposes. Why is it, then that we have observed in recent times a rash of expressions of something between panic and concern for the sustainability of what we try to do, particularly in the context of economic development?

The answer, if there is one, must lie in the political and political economy forces that motivate the people who express influential opinions about research policy directions Accordingly, we must seek understanding in the forces that propel these expressions. What must be one important driving force has been the political rise of the green movement, especially in industrial countries and most especially in Western European countries. The essential concern seems to be one of passing on the world to subsequent generations in a state that is, in some intergenerational welfare sense, acceptable. Against such a broad general concern, one then has to examine the way that many resources are being managed in contemporary agricultural, broadly defined. The whole process of concern has been facilitated by hypothesised developments at the global level, including the possible atmospheric warming associated with changed atmospheric composition. There are other emotional centrepieces that drive much of the discussion. Some of these pertain to the exploitation of natural resources that seem important in global context such as the moist tropical forests, for instance. Yet other concerned observers are most alarmed by the pollution of the natural environment through many forms of agriculture whether this be acid rain and its consequence for European forests, groundwater pollution from excessive infiltration and runoff of high levels of inorganic fertiliser application, or simply the atmospheric stench associated with intensive animal production such as pig production in south-central Netherlands. The symptoms of such pollution are growing at alarming rates in particular locations and this has done much to support the broadly based political agendas of the green movement.

The transition from such concerns of industrialised countries to the implications for the way in which less-developed countries manage their agriculture is not a linear one and involves a deal of extrapolation, some of which may have been rather readily supported by casual empiricism, such as trends apparent in the degradation of some natural resources, especially lands of Sub-Saharan Africa, the mentioned problems of rainforests, and so on. Yet in other instances, there are clearly problems with the decline in inherent soil fertility of many soils that have been operated on essentially a mining basis for far too long in the many parts of the world where fertilisers are particularly expensive or variously unavailable.

Whatever may be the facts of the matter in particular circumstances, the responsibilities for agronomists are clear. Pollution and resource degradation are important features of reality that must be addressed and dealt with through better knowledge of their causes and consequences and through innovative approaches to amelioration. There is nothing new in this. What might be viewed as novel is that people engaged in such work can suddenly be identified as sustainability researchers' , notwithstanding the fact that they probably have been involved in such activities throughout their careers. Relatedly, agrononmic research must necessarily have the long term as well as the short term state of the natural factors of production in its agenda. There are bound to be many uncertainties concerning some of the processes and many will persist as knowledge expands, inter alia obliging agronomists to grapple with the risks and uncertainties (1), but such is the ongoing challenge of research in this field.

The state of investment in agronomic research

There are few in any studies that examine the differential returns from agronomic research vis-a-vis other fields of agricultural research. The most ambitious review of relevant materials is that of Byerlee (3) who has overviewed some dozen studies that have apportioned increases in yields of designated crops to those due to crop management improvements. The contributions range from 30-100% and are typically 70%, even after netting out the 'initial' effects of adoption of modern varieties and nitrogenous fertilisers in the early stages of the green revolution. He also previews the evaluative work on wheat management research in northern Mexico that reveals high rates of return to such applied research (9). All such data are important but only partial elements for addressing the more challenging issue raised in the opening sentence of this paragraph.

It is also not too surprising that there are few data around depicting the changing patterns of investment in such different fields of applied science, so it is difficult to comment on evolving priorities between, say, agronomy, plant breeding and plant molecular biology, for instance. In the US State Agricultural Experiment Stations, some 47 percent of scientific staff are categorised as Plant Scientists; they were 6313 in 1980 (6). Distinguishing agronomic effort per se seems difficult, given existing data collections. One crude indicator is the 'orientation' of PhDs awarded by the Land-Grant institutions. For the five years 1975-1979, of 8734 degrees in all Agriculture and Home Economics, 1115 were in agronomy, compared with only 373 in Genetics and 761 in Agricultural Economics (6).

There is a sparsity of cogent data on investment in agronomic research per se. Unfortunately, those that have been assembled are neither readily available nor particularly reliable. It seems that this has been a notable form of under investment amongst agricultural research activities. The 'big spenders' tend to be livestock research, which is often somewhat ill-defined and includes a variety of veterinary-based regulatory activities, and plant breeding. Plant breeders have, over the past 20 years or so, had the lion's share of resources. This was probably fairly appropriate in most situations because the research gains could be readily disseminated and were widely applicable. Now that the 'easy' gains of the green revolution have been made however, agronomists must come to their own to deal with the 'second generation' problems, whereby further plant breeding, and indeed even many of the gains associated with past plant improvement programs, can only be effectively capitalised upon through more efficient agronomic management. Crop management research is taking a higher profile in both international and national agricultural research although it is, as yet frustratingly difficult to find examples of high rates of return to such endeavour.

Strategic implications for agronomists

Increasingly, agronomists will find it necessary to take a wider view of the agricultural systems under their investigation. As more and more concerns for the environment dominate decisions about resource allocation in both public and private agricultural research and extension systems around the globe, it will be necessary for agronomists to have an informed opinion about where `their' particular agricultural systems connect with other important systems.

There are many examples of these interlinked systems. One is the global atmospheric system and thus an agronomist worth her wait will need to be wise about (presumably informed by careful experimental assessment of) the net contribution of alternative agronomic systems to the enhanced greenhouse effect, through its net carbon balance vis-a-vis the atmosphere. To the extent that animals are involved in a particular system, this work will become even more demanding and difficult.

The concerns so much in evidence during the energy crisis of the early 70s will take on something of a continuing source of apprehension and once again agronomists will be encouraged to measure and economise on any purchased energy inputs to agriculture, particularly those based on the petroleum industries.

Other environmental concerns related to input usage and outflows from agriculture will need to be re-addressed such as phosphorus runoff causing eutrophication of water intended for nonagricultural uses and nitrite contamination of ground water supplies through potentially excessive use of nitrogenous fertiliser, for example.

These issues are also, in a sense, old standard ones for good quality broadly-based agronomy but, in the future, it will be necessary to have explicit measurement and documentation of such aspects. The net result will probably be an increased unit cost of research operations and a demand for higher levels of professional skills in the associated areas.


Fads and fashions in the donor community come and go. Sustainability has now been around for some times and seems to be sustainable as a fashion in the short run notwithstanding the dismissal of Little and Mirrlees (7) that "This is more of a 'buzzword' ... than a genuine concept ... [of] no merit ... [and] has nothing to do with whether [something] ... is desirable". I predict that the pendulum will swing back to a new position which places sustainability per se as a more minor concern than is presently the case in the current debate about agricultural research strategy. My prediction is based on the inherent fuzziness of the concept, together with the sociological observation that donors need to find new imperatives to drive their agenda. On the fuzziness question, it is difficult to get too excited about investing in something which is intrinsically ill-defined in its conceptual structure. Some of the concerns embodied within those expressed such as by FAO (5) for sustainable agricultural development will doubtless continue to receive strong attention but they will probably be canvassed under new fashionable terminologies yet unminted. My own guess is that the pendulum will swing to a renewed concern for economic growth and the associated ability of nations to produce enough agricultural goods and services for their developmental needs, which will include both national food security concerns and international trading opportunities.

With the growing pressures from population growth in so many parts of the world, this renewed focus on productivity per se will be difficult to avoid, notwithstanding the fact that the associated environmental costs of agricultural development will surely increase and be of continuing concern and deserving of continued careful attention. Agronomists surely have important roles in this process, both to achieve greater technical and economic efficiency through their suggested interventions and to inform public debate on the needs (a) for such agricultural research effort and (b) for the associated and better management of the globe's natural resource base.


1. Anderson, J.R. and Dillon, J.L. 1991. Guidelines on the Incorporation of Risk in Farming Systems Analysis for the Development of Dryland Areas, FAO. Rome.

2. Anderson, J.R. and Thampapillai, J. 1990. Soil Conservation in Developing Countries: Project and Policy Intervention, Policy & Research Series PRS8, World Bank, Washington DC. p. 45.

3. Byerlee, D. 1991, 'Technology transfer systems for improved crop management: lessons for the future', paper presented at a World Bank Conference, Agricultural Technology: Current Policy Issues for the International Community and the World Bank, Airlie House, Virginia, 21-23 October.

4. Chapman, D. and Barker, R. 1991. Ec. Dev. Cult. Change 39, 723-37.

5. FAO. 1991. The den Bosch Declaration and Agenda for Action on Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development: Report of the Conference, FAO and the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature Management and Fisheries of the Netherlands, Rome.

6. Huffrnan, W. and Evenson, R.E. 1992. Science for Agriculture. (Iowa State University Press: Ames).

7. Little, I.M.D. and Mirralees, J.A. 1991. Proc. World Bank Ann. Conf. Dev. Ec. 1990. pp. 351-382.

8. Norgaard, R.B. 1991. Sustainability as Intergenerational Equity: The Challenge to Economic Thought and Practice, Asia Regional Series Report No. IDP 97, World Bank, Washington DC.

9. Traxler, G. and Byerlee, D. 1992. Crop Management Research: The Products and Their Impact on Productivity, Economic Paper No. 5, CIMMYT, Mexico. (forthcoming).

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