Summary

One of the challenges we face in developing agricultural strategies that are truly sustainable is maintaining the resource base—the soil and water that make agriculture possible. But the pressures on these resources are extraordinary: five billion people now inhabit the earth, with an additional one billion expected each decade well into the next century. The specter of possible changes in climate adds another level of uncertainty. It is time to ask how we can move "toward sustainability," toward a strategy of agriculture and natural resource management that supports current populations while leaving future generations an equitable share of the earth's great wealth.

Population growth, intensified land use, environmental degradation, and agricultural productivity are interrelated issues. Although agricultural technology has performed well in the last 20 years to meet the needs of a vastly larger and generally more prosperous world population, there is concern that those initiatives have peaked and that the technologies in use focus mainly on the best sites—flat areas with ample water and few soil constraints. Scientists in the United States and throughout the world are worried about the decline in productivity in many soil and water systems, especially in the high population growth regions—Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Meeting the world's increased needs and expectations will require concerted effort. Research is necessary on three fronts. First, techniques must be developed to intensify use of good quality lands while minimizing environmental degradation. Second, ways must be sought to enhance production and reduce degradation on lands previously viewed as "marginal" or "ecologically fragile." Finally, new emphasis must focus on restoring degraded lands.

It is within this context that the Agency for International Development (AID) asked the National Research Council (NRC) "to develop a broad agenda for directing worldwide international research and development ef



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Toward Sustainability: Soil and Water Research Priorities for Developing Countries Summary One of the challenges we face in developing agricultural strategies that are truly sustainable is maintaining the resource base—the soil and water that make agriculture possible. But the pressures on these resources are extraordinary: five billion people now inhabit the earth, with an additional one billion expected each decade well into the next century. The specter of possible changes in climate adds another level of uncertainty. It is time to ask how we can move "toward sustainability," toward a strategy of agriculture and natural resource management that supports current populations while leaving future generations an equitable share of the earth's great wealth. Population growth, intensified land use, environmental degradation, and agricultural productivity are interrelated issues. Although agricultural technology has performed well in the last 20 years to meet the needs of a vastly larger and generally more prosperous world population, there is concern that those initiatives have peaked and that the technologies in use focus mainly on the best sites—flat areas with ample water and few soil constraints. Scientists in the United States and throughout the world are worried about the decline in productivity in many soil and water systems, especially in the high population growth regions—Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Meeting the world's increased needs and expectations will require concerted effort. Research is necessary on three fronts. First, techniques must be developed to intensify use of good quality lands while minimizing environmental degradation. Second, ways must be sought to enhance production and reduce degradation on lands previously viewed as "marginal" or "ecologically fragile." Finally, new emphasis must focus on restoring degraded lands. It is within this context that the Agency for International Development (AID) asked the National Research Council (NRC) "to develop a broad agenda for directing worldwide international research and development ef

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Toward Sustainability: Soil and Water Research Priorities for Developing Countries forts related to the use of soil and water resources to sustain agriculture.'' The NRC's Committee on Soil and Water Research and Development (CISWRD) was established in 1990 to prepare this report. While we have gained a much better understanding of soil and water systems in the developing world over the past few decades, too little of this new knowledge has been successfully applied to many fundamental management problems. There are substantial gaps in our basic understanding of the ecology of these systems and of the social complexity inherent in resource use. The committee began its work with a clear charge to look at soil and water research priorities that would contribute to sustainable agricultural strategies. Sustainable agriculture had become a major policy thrust for AID and many other organizations in the development community. But it soon became clear that the rift that often separates those interested in agriculture from those interested in natural resources needs now—more than ever—to be bridged. If sustainability is a goal, then agriculture and natural resource management interests must recognize that they are equal partners in the effort. Competition for ''ownership" of the issue is counter productive. These interests must be willing to negotiate a coordinated strategy that includes the strengths of both orientations. The most compelling theme that emerged during this study is the need for better integration of soil and water research with other elements relevant to natural resource management. Soil and water practices are not independent endeavors, but rather must be an integral part of a larger landscape management. Our understanding of the basic principles of soil and water processes is fairly good, but our ability to apply this knowledge to solve problems in complex local and cultural settings is weak. The single issue research approaches of the past brought great benefits, but the problems we face are changing and demand a more holistic vision. A FRAMEWORK FOR ASSESSING RESEARCH PRIORITIES To achieve sustainable agriculture, the world's agricultural pro ductivity must be enhanced while its resource base is conserved. Research will be essential to this task. The complex nature of sustainability demands that the research entail a systems approach that includes integrated research design, interdisciplinary and farmer participation, and a broad perspective as well as specific focuses. A systems-based framework needs to be devised so future research—whether guided by the priorities outlined in this report or elsewhere—can be effective and efficient. A first step toward sustainability is the matching of organisms and husbandry to the in-site characteristics of the land and water environment and, of course, to the resource preferences and economic and cultural context of

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Toward Sustainability: Soil and Water Research Priorities for Developing Countries the users. This is an obvious, but often difficult, task. The aim of any research framework should be to identify the important elements of these mismatches—the most significant constraints on sustainability—and resolve them. CRITICAL RESEARCH PRIORITIES Two key indicators of deterioration in a gricultural systems are declines in the quality of the soil and the water. Poor management of either of these resources quickly leads to decreases in farm productivity. Most developing countries occupy tropical zones ranging from seasonally and to humid tropical environments. Agriculture in tropical environments faces different constraints than in temperate regions, and this affects soil and water research needs. Given the problems faced by tropical agriculture, the unique characteristics of the environments and cultures, and the strengths and weaknesses of the existing data base, research in the following six areas could offer great rewards in support of sustainable agriculture and natural resource management: Overcoming institutional constraints on resource conservation; Enhancing soil biological processes; Managing soil properties; Improving water resource management; Matching crops to environments; and Effectively incorporating social and cultural dimensions into research. To further these goals, the wealth of time-tested indigenous knowledge that exists needs to be tapped. Special potential lies in the blending of traditional and modern knowledge. One of the most intractable problems yet to be faced is the difficulty of communicating new ideas to the farmer and establishing two-way communication between farmers and researchers. Research and development organizations have struggled with this problem for many years, and it remains a high priority issue. AN INTEGRATED RESEARCH STRATEGY A collaborative, integrated research strategy requires institutional mechanisms and structures that effectively link research efforts and organizations with clients, and that enhance the interactions among the different components of research. Mechanisms are needed to reassess research priorities periodically and to generate local data about soil and water resources. A basic issue in any attempt to target research to the needs of users is the pattern of communication and feedback among the different people involved.

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Toward Sustainability: Soil and Water Research Priorities for Developing Countries The chains of communication can be complex. Traditionally, crop research went through a hierarchial sequence from basic research to field testing to extension-agent promotion. But this structure has not always worked in developing countries. Special efforts are required to encourage networks, "intermediate change agents" (e.g., private voluntary organizations), and other mechanisms to link researchers and research organizations with universities in host countries, private voluntary organizations, village organizations, and farmers in interactive exchanges. Participation from the ultimate recipients of research—the farmers—is needed throughout the process of planning and conducting research. CONCLUSIONS Some common themes crystallized during the committee's deliberations: Major gaps still exist in our understanding of soil and water systems and processes, but more important are the gaps between what is known and what is applied. Indigenous knowledge should always be assessed. It often can suggest promising research on ecosystem components and strategies, such as nitrogen fixing trees, nutrient accumulating species, and low input irrigation techniques. In some cases, it can provide a platform for the integration of traditional and new technologies. More effective links between the social and the natural science aspects of soil and water problems are needed. Social and economic contexts create constraints that can effectively limit the application of technical improvements unless such contexts are adequately understood and addressed. More effective ways to use research resources for long-term, practical ends are needed. How can better feedback and communication be established between the field and the research institution so research can be focused on real, practical problems? The weakest link in the research process is the dissemination of research findings to the farm or regional levels, with the great physical and human diversity that occurs. Greater effort is needed to develop better ways to communicate results. Soil and water resources provide the foundation upon which agriculture is based. But successful agricultural production systems require a combination of biological and societal resources. This is a complex and dynamic mix of variables. In view of the evolutionary nature of agricultural systems, it is important that the setting of research priorities be an ongoing process. Research priorities must be reassessed and adjusted periodically to serve the problems at hand. A mechanism is needed for evaluating and reiterating priorities to keep them fresh, flexible, and responsive to current needs.

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Toward Sustainability: Soil and Water Research Priorities for Developing Countries An effective effort to build sustainability into our agricultural systems will require changes in the philosophy and operating procedures of development organizations. Program planners and implementers will need to be more responsive to the evolution of individual agricultural systems and to the broader aspirations, needs, and capabilities of the user populations. The search for ways to achieve sustainable agriculture and natural resource management will require changes in our traditional approach to problem solving. Researchers must cross the boundaries of their individual disciplines; they must broaden their perspective to see the merits of indigenous knowledge; and they must look to the farmer for help in defining a practical context for research. This change in vision is under way in various degrees throughout the research community, but the pace of change is slow.