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A Framework for Assessing Research Priorities

Soil and water research must focus on issues that will enable farmers to manage natural resources to gain maximum efficiency of use while maintaining or enhancing environmental quality. A common constraint is the ''mismatch'' between the characteristics of the soil and water environment and the desired use of the site; the challenge is to identify and employ appropriate management practices. The range of options needed can best be developed using a systems approach, which can facilitate relatively precise evaluations of problems, solutions, and results.

It is not surprising that a small committee specifically charged to examine the complex problem of setting soil and water research priorities should decide that new approaches, as well as new priorities, are needed. It is remarkable, however, that a gathering of 30 scientists chosen primarily for their expertise on individual parts of the soil and water research agenda should agree, almost without exception, that the most critical priority is not any one area but rather the links among areas. The primary reason for this departure from tradition could be that the guiding question was not just "what are the top priority soil and water research issues" but rather, "how can soil and water research play a significant role in managing agroecosystems for sustainability"—a very different task.

Achieving sustainable agriculture will demand that the world's agricultural production capacity be enhanced while its resource base is conserved. If the well-being of the world's less advantaged people is to improve in any lasting sense, long-range concerns about security and the health of natural resources must be addressed when planning future economic and social development. Research will be essential to this task. Researchers must devote greater attention to developing integrated cropping, livestock, and other production systems—and the specific farming practices within these



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Toward Sustainability: Soil and Water Research Priorities for Developing Countries 2 A Framework for Assessing Research Priorities Soil and water research must focus on issues that will enable farmers to manage natural resources to gain maximum efficiency of use while maintaining or enhancing environmental quality. A common constraint is the ''mismatch'' between the characteristics of the soil and water environment and the desired use of the site; the challenge is to identify and employ appropriate management practices. The range of options needed can best be developed using a systems approach, which can facilitate relatively precise evaluations of problems, solutions, and results. It is not surprising that a small committee specifically charged to examine the complex problem of setting soil and water research priorities should decide that new approaches, as well as new priorities, are needed. It is remarkable, however, that a gathering of 30 scientists chosen primarily for their expertise on individual parts of the soil and water research agenda should agree, almost without exception, that the most critical priority is not any one area but rather the links among areas. The primary reason for this departure from tradition could be that the guiding question was not just "what are the top priority soil and water research issues" but rather, "how can soil and water research play a significant role in managing agroecosystems for sustainability"—a very different task. Achieving sustainable agriculture will demand that the world's agricultural production capacity be enhanced while its resource base is conserved. If the well-being of the world's less advantaged people is to improve in any lasting sense, long-range concerns about security and the health of natural resources must be addressed when planning future economic and social development. Research will be essential to this task. Researchers must devote greater attention to developing integrated cropping, livestock, and other production systems—and the specific farming practices within these

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Toward Sustainability: Soil and Water Research Priorities for Developing Countries systems—that enhance (or, at minimum, do not degrade) the structure and functioning of the broader agroecosystem and regional landscapes (NRC, 1991b). A primary objective of research on sustainable agriculture and natural resource management is the integration of information in its application to the problems of agricultural development (Edwards et al., 1990; Grove et al., 1990). This process requires an approach to interdisciplinary research that includes the following: (1) identification of the components and interactions that determine the structure and functioning of the agroecosystem as a whole; (2) formulation of hypotheses that focus on those components and interactions within the entire agroecosystem; (3) examination, testing, and measurement of the hypotheses; and (4) interpretation of results as they pertain to the various components of the agroecosystem and to the system as a whole. A lack of understanding of the interrelatedness of system components has undermined agricultural sustainability in the past (NRC, 1991b). In the United States, the dearth of systems research and political will has been identified as a key obstacle to the adoption of alternative farming practices and as necessary to the development of more sustainable agriculture (NRC, 1989a, 1989b). The integrated research design, interdisciplinary participation, and systemwide perspective that the systems approach entails are even more necessary elsewhere in the world if the complex nature of sustainability is to be understood and threats to sustainability identified and addressed. A systems-based framework needs to be devised so that future research—whether guided by the priorities outlined in this report or elsewhere—can be effective, efficient, and focused. Framework here means a structure of ideas, a guiding vision, under which research priorities are set—the goals, objectives, and program mission of the underlying organizational structures. It is the framework, rather than any particular set of priorities, that will have lasting impact as long as the system has the capacity to receive feedback from the field and translate it into guidance for action. This report is an overview and thus general where some might hope for concrete. It is not intended to be a simple road map because that is not possible, given the issue. This chapter sets out the committee's thinking on an appropriate framework for setting soil and water research priorities. The central problem is to integrate a spectrum of component-oriented research results and focus the knowledge on the problem of sustainability, particularly on marginal lands. At the same time, there is a need to bring local wisdom together with modern scientific knowledge and require that at least some portion of future research be driven by problems identified in the field. This suggests the need for effective feedback mechanisms that include farmer participation throughout the design and implementation of a research strategy.

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Toward Sustainability: Soil and Water Research Priorities for Developing Countries KEY ELEMENTS IN THE RESEARCH FRAMEWORK Sustainability of production at a given location is obtained by appropriate management of all elements of that environment at that site. In some cases, the activities will be conservation oriented, while in others production might be the focus. In any case, the management strategy must exist in the context of the local landscape, cultural concerns, and land use practices. To ensure adequate and increasing productivity over the long term, the use of water, soil, and other natural resources needs to be understood within the evolving social and economic context. 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 characteristics of the users. This is an obvious, but difficult, task and many times "mismatches" occur. Crops are planted that are not suited to the existing soil and water conditions; varieties are used that fail to produce consistently enough to satisfy the Matching crops to environments requires careful attention to the physical setting, as illustrated in this example of the agricultural practices available for a variety of humid tropical landscapes. In addition, efforts must be made to match crops and production strategies to social, cultural, and economic environments as well. Credit: Pedro Sanchez and Jose Benites, North Carolina State University.

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Toward Sustainability: Soil and Water Research Priorities for Developing Countries needs of the community; increased production pressures leave even the best of local management techniques incapable of replacing nutrients at a rate that ensures sustainability. For these and many other reasons, mismatches occur between the results of current practice and the goal of long-term sustainability. The aim of any research framework is to identify the important elements of these mismatches—the most significant constraints on sustainability—and resolve them, where possible, through the application of current knowledge, appropriate policy, and political action, and where not possible now, through the design of appropriate research. A flexible research framework will do the following: Encourage continued research on the specific elements and characteristics of soil and water systems, but in the context of the integrated priorities; Take the results of past and present component research and integrate them to focus on current problems; Incorporate both scientific and local knowledge into this integration; Develop mechanisms to respond to problems identified in the field; and Encourage dissemination of research results to the field and monitor the impacts to provide feedback to researchers. SELECTING APPROPRIATE ORGANISMS AND HUSBANDRY Throughout the history of agriculture, there have been only three methods used to select appropriate techniques for agricultural systems: trial and error, analogy, and systems analysis. Trial and error has been, and still is, the most common process. People have experimented with agroecosystems over long periods of time and adapted their management to local contexts. Although no local system is perfect, in the past such ongoing "folk" experimentation has served people well. The problem is that changes in population, markets, and tenure systems, and other modern pressures often destabilize these systems. Change occurs at a faster rate than can be accommodated through gradual trial and error. Indigenous knowledge thus is not always appropriate to the environment of use, nor effective in offering the full range of alternatives needed. Analogy—the selection of potentially useful crops or animals for particular locales by comparing what had been successful at other, similar locales—has been a dominant force in the introduction of crops, animals, and practices from one part of the world to another. In this century, the most prominent example of this process is the spread of high-yielding varieties of rice. Specialized organisms, such as vetiver grass, are being tested on this basis. Analogy will continue to be used as a way to detect the kind of local experimental testing that seems most effective. Systems analysis—for example, the prediction of the performance of a

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Toward Sustainability: Soil and Water Research Priorities for Developing Countries TABLE 2.1 An Example of a Minimum Physical Data Set to Predict Crop Performance Daily weather data: • maximum temperature • minimum temperature • precipitation • solar radiation Soil data by horizons: • sand, silt, and clay content • bulk density • organic carbon content • nitrogen content • pH Crop data: • genetic coefficients for development • genetic coefficients for growth   Site information: • temperature • solar radiation • day length • soil water deficits • soil nitrogen deficits Management opportunities: • row spacing • plant population • planting date • irrigation • fertilizer applications • residue management   Source: International Benchmark Sites Network, 1988. specific cultivar based on a comparative analysis of the environmental conditions—is the next step in progressively more analytical attempts to match agricultural techniques to the local environment (see Table 2.1). It can provide a more global, process-oriented approach to identifying factors that are key to the sustainability of agroecosystems. Systems analysis has the potential to cut across conventional ecological boundaries and carry knowledge from one agroecosystem to another. It has the capacity to allow quantitative projections of the results of research and to bring a wide range of different kinds of knowledge to bear on the particular problems at hand. This approach can be expanded to include economic, institutional, and cultural, as well as physical environmental site conditions. APPLYING SYSTEMS ANALYSIS TO THE RESEARCH FRAMEWORK To propose systems analysis to a study of agroecosystems is hardly new. What is new, however, is the attempt to bring a level of precision to this integration that would allow relatively precise evaluations of problems, solutions, and results. In attempting to use a systems approach, three major

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Toward Sustainability: Soil and Water Research Priorities for Developing Countries SYSYEM PROPERTIES Agroecosystems demonstrate certain system properties that can help researchers understand the complexity inherent in sustainable agricultural systems These properties can be labeled productivity, stability, sustainability, equitability, diversity, and adaptability (Cuc et al., 1990, KEPAS, 1985; Marten and Rambo, 1988) Although the terminology developed to name and describe these properties may not satisfy everyone, the concepts are useful. These properties are essentially descriptive; they can be used to summarize the behavior of agroecosystems and as indicators of performance. Productivity is the system's net output of goods and services, commonly measured either as annual yield or net income per unit of input or resource (for example, yield per hectare). Stability is a measure of the constancy of the productivity. It describes the degree to which productivity remains constant despite normal, small-scale fluctuations in environmental variables (for example, climate or economic conditions) A small degree of variability indicates a high level of stability; a high degree of variability indicates a low level of stability. Sustainability is the ability of a system to maintain productivity when subjected to stress and shock A stress is a regular, sometimes continuous and cumulative, relatively small and predictable disturbance (for example, the effect of erosion) A shock, by contrast, is an irregular, infrequent, relatively large, and unpredictable disturbance, such as might be caused by a flood, new pest, or political upheaval A highly sustainable system is able to recover rapidly and completely from disturbances; a moderately sustainable system can recover, but slowly. A system with low sustainability might collapse or recover only to a lower level of productivity. Equitability is a term used to express how evenly or fairly the products of an agroecosystem (food, fiber, fuel, income) are distributed among its human beneficiaries at the household, farm, village, regional, or national levels. Diversity is a measure of the number of different types of components (for example, species) within a system Diversity allows rural people to spread risks and maintain a minimum level of subsistence even when some activities fail. Adaptability refers to the ability of the system to respond to change in its environment. This concept is related to the concepts of stability and sustainability. It describes the capacity of an agroecosystem to respond to perturbations and still function at an acceptable level of productivity. Agricultural development almost inevitably involves trade-offs between the different system properties For instance, the introduction of a new technology such as fertilizer may have the immediate effect of increasing productivity, but this is often at the expense of one or more other properties. A sense of the dynamic interactions of these properties as agricultural systems are pressured, and how far they can be pushed before the overall sustainability is compromised, is a central question.

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Toward Sustainability: Soil and Water Research Priorities for Developing Countries issues surface: our understanding of processes, the adequacy of the data base, and the translation of global knowledge to site-specific situations. A simple conceptual model for the conduct of integrated agricultural systems research would include the following elements (NRC, 1991b): Description of the target agroecosystem, including its boundaries and components, functions, interactions among its components, and interactions across its boundaries; Analysis of the agroecosystem to determine constraints on, and factors that can contribute to, the attainment of social, economic, and environmental goals; Identification of interventions and actions to overcome the constraints; On-farm experimentation with interventions; and Evaluation of the effectiveness of newly designed systems, and redesign as necessary. The application of soil and water research has been hampered by imperfect understanding of some soil and water processes, and more often, by inadequate understanding of how different processes are connected. Some processes, such as the movement of water over and through soil, are reasonably well understood; others, such as the effect of soil loss on nutrient availability, or how commodity prices might affect conservation practices, are less well known. How a farmer's choice of agricultural practice is influenced to degrade or protect resources is even less understood. Such factors as land tenure, food-pricing policies, availability of inputs, as well as social and cultural constraints, affect the technologies a farmer will employ at any particular time. Little is known of the reasons a farmer places long-term stewardship or good husbandry of the land as a priority over immediate, short-range returns, particularly when living near the subsistence level. This imperfect knowledge base means that predicting the consequences of interventions is more art than science. Analysis of the results of interventions is thus always needed. Data bases are a vital component of a valid systems approach, though multiple kinds of data can help fulfill this need. Although many fundamental processes operate within well-defined rules and knowledge can be extrapolated from one area to another, information on soil and water characteristics are site specific. To foster wider use of the systems approach, an international network needs to address standardized data base management and develop a set of common procedures to derive particular elements of the data base. The need to bring a broader understanding of processes together with the site-specific data is a key component of the framework. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways and will often include the intermingling of scientific and local understanding of data obtained through standard, more

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Toward Sustainability: Soil and Water Research Priorities for Developing Countries universal methods with those generated at local levels through more traditional means. Research in this framework, then, focuses on the need for understanding the local system and for evaluation of the relevant problems within that system. It is then possible to predict the effect of interventions and undertake means to control unwanted consequences, that is, to ensure sustainability at present or higher levels of productivity. The scope of such research must pass through various scales of analysis, from the plant and soil interactions through local ecosystems to the meso scale (river basin size) system, for example. This diversity of scale is necessary to analyze sustainability at the crop or crop-mix level, at the level of the farm and its surrounding land and water, and at the regional level where management of watersheds and hill slopes can have a major impact on the other parts of the system. Recent advances in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) permit analysis of such spatially distributed phenomena. GIS enables data to be integrated through a common geographical frame of reference and fosters interdisciplinary research. In past decades, the United States has been a leader in the production of research on the tropical soil, biotic, and hydrologic systems. Much of the research has been focused on theoretical problems related to components of these various systems, and has been driven by particular institutional and personal preferences. Consequently, much remains to be done in refining the research effort to deal with the real problems faced by tropical areas. When we add the goal of sustainability and realize that many of the tough problems of sustainability are those associated with more marginal lands, there is an even greater need to refocus effort, particularly in light of the poor record of sustainability in better endowed regions. To be successful, future soil and water research must be organized in a systematic context. A driving force for that research will be the need of the peoples of the area and of the adaptability of the physical system to meet those needs. While the next chapter will outline important priorities that need attention, our overall priority will be to create a new and revitalized approach to the research process. Clearly, this will be a significant challenge, but it is attainable. THE RESEARCH FRAMEWORK AND THE FARMER To focus research more effectively on the needs of farmers in specific socioeconomic settings, researchers will need to spend more time on farms and in actual farming situations. They will need to understand the farmer's problems and the myriad variables the farmer considers during decision making. For instance, the farmer may not need a higher yielding corn, but rather one that is more resistant to moisture stress early in the growing season. Or perhaps the farmer most needs a variety that will compete

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Toward Sustainability: Soil and Water Research Priorities for Developing Countries effectively when grown within a suite of crops. The results of research need to be evaluated in the field under realistic conditions. This approach does not imply that component research is no longer needed, only that investigators must become more familiar with the wide range of cropping strategies employed by farmers, and with the pressing limitations that matter most to them. It is appropriate to mention here that many farming and land systems are managed by women and that research efforts and extension may need to be analyzed in light of gender relations. Many of the agricultural systems in use in developing countries are complex, diverse, and changing (Altieri and Hecht, 1990). Researchers can benefit from understanding some of the common characteristics these agricultural systems share (OTA, 1988). For example: Many farmers use techniques designed to minimize risk, even if this means they obtain less than maximum yields; They rely primarily on local, indigenous knowledge, although new crops are regularly incorporated into existing systems; They often depend on biological processes and renewable resources in lieu of capital-intensive inputs; They commonly involve low cash costs but require relatively high amounts of labor; and Their management strategies are adapted to local cultures and environments, although social as well as ecological systems are showing increased problems because of mounting stresses. No advance in either soil or water management practices can be useful unless the practice is adopted by the land users. Researchers, of course, have little or no control over nontechnical aspects of this critical decision-making process. But researchers can encourage the right choices. Indeed, researchers should try to develop a rich variety of innovations together with farmers, on the assumption that it is the farmer who is best able to choose from a set of alternatives one that is at once desirable and practical. Special attention needs to be given to devising incentives that encourage farmers to choose sustainable approaches. Enabling both land resource users and policymakers to exercise choice may well be the key to technology adoption. One of the critical issues in sustainable natural resource management is to develop mechanisms that allow farmers to earn enough income so they can afford to strive for long-term sustainability instead of short-term gains during any one cropping season. Farmers do have a sense of stewardship and husbandry for the land; it is a challenge for the research and development establishments to find ways to harness this stewardship for the long-term good of the farm and the farming community. Only well-integrated activities involving several disciplines, including the social and biological scientists working with the farmers, can bring the more holistic approach needed to implement and maintain more sustainable agricultural strategies.