Introduction to Operational Issues
In 1989, the Congress of the United States responded to growing environmental concerns with important legislation concerning sustainable agriculture, including legislation that mandates new initiatives within the Agency for International Development (AID). The congressional directive to AID is two-pronged: augment the current programs of the Office of Agriculture by emphasizing sustainable agriculture, and undertake a new activity that focuses specifically on sustainable agriculture. The administrator of AID underlined that directive in a recent statement in which he expressed his view that addressing environmental issues is paramount in AID's mission.
Clearly, AID has reached a major crossroads. The drive for sustainable agriculture is one expression of an evolutionary process that involves a wide range of perspectives and professions. The deliberations of the National Research Council's Panel for Collaborative Research Support for AID's Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management (SANREM) program will be highly significant as AID responds to the challenges of sustainable agriculture and the important opportunities that Congress has presented. New challenges and opportunities are also reflected in the emerging views of such organizations as the Technical Advisory Committee of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. The criteria used to determine the research agenda for sustainable agriculture will be crucial to the process, as will the development of mechanisms by which the particular disciplines can cooperate and concentrate on priorities for the future.
David Bathrick is the director of the Office of Agriculture, Agency for International Development, Washington, D.C.
Since the late 1970s, AID's Collaborative Research Support Programs (CRSPs) have been bringing together some of “the best and brightest” to address agricultural problems. Recognizing this record of achievement, Congress has called for a new, sustainable agriculture CRSP, following the model employed by existing CRSPs. From the point of view of the Office of Agriculture, many of the traditional precepts of the CRSPs relate to the task at hand. Research in sustainable agriculture demands long-term institutional commitment. The congressional mandate to AID calls for a 3-year commitment, but the position of the Office of Agriculture, the Bureau for Science and Technology, and AID as a whole is that the magnitude of the task ahead will require a long-term commitment. Based on what the Office of Agriculture is hearing from AID's regional bureaus, from agriculturalists, and from the environmental community, sustainable agriculture will be the focus of even greater attention in the future, and AID needs to know more to be truly responsive. Research, then, requires the long-term commitment—longer even than the CRSPs have been around—that has been the cornerstone of the CRSP approach.
Meanwhile, the CRSPs themselves have evolved, and their work has gained increased influence on many aspects of development. The AID overseas missions, private voluntary organizations, and others with whom they are now collaborating have gained greater access to their deliberations and the results of their work. The service dimension has been added to CRSP activities, broadening them where appropriate beyond research, and university collaboration has brought matching funds—25 percent as a minimum, but in many cases close to 50 percent, to CRSP activities.
Training, mainly in agricultural disciplines, has been another basic aspect of CRSP work. The scope of training will no doubt be broadened as the multidisciplinary issues essential to the new program are addressed. Multidisciplinarity has been key to the success of the CRSP system, though in varying degrees, and the new CRSP must build on that experience to achieve true interdisciplinarity. It should look at improved technologies, but also at the processes and methodologies relevant to sustainable agriculture. Finally, the collaborative emphasis of the CRSPs, and the “win-win” relationships they foster, are highly significant. The U.S. scientific community is working with professional counterparts in the international research system, on agendas that are of mutual interest. The development of sustainable agriculture systems will clearly be of increased concern both in the United States and overseas, and CRSP research will present new opportunities for U.S. leadership.
There are no models to guide the evolution of a conceptual framework for the SANREM CRSP, and the ideas generated by the Panel for Collaborative Research Support for AID's SANREM program will be vital to the Office of Agriculture in implementing the program. It is worth noting that
the CRSP system itself met with some skepticism when it was begun, but with determination, strong guidance, and prudent leadership, a viable system was created. The Office of Agriculture, the Bureau for Science and Technology, and AID's regional bureaus see the new CRSP as one key element of a sustainable agricultural program. Sustainability is the overarching theme. The overall program encompasses over 20 activities apart from the CRSPs. The management challenge for the Office of Agriculture is to determine how each program can make its particular contribution, how to augment certain facets, complement others, and fill gaps for the expanded mission.
The point has been made repeatedly that the work of the SANREM CRSP must be systems oriented, incorporate interdisciplinarity, and build on the experiences of farming systems research from a still broader range of perspectives. This has definite management implications. The ecological dimension, until now never a key in designing and managing farming systems, has to become the cornerstone. Farming systems have traditionally focused on isolated agricultural considerations; now there is growing appreciation that livestock-agriculture-soil-water-forestry linkages are fundamental parts of real sustainable systems from a farmer's perspective. Social concerns, including those of economists, must also be incorporated in a true spirit of interdisciplinarity. People must also have a sense of mutual respect as part of a committed team. This implies more than just sending messages back and forth and meeting periodically. The new CRSP must build on component research, expand it to a wider range of challenges, and integrate it at a higher level than is now done. Unfortunately, U.S. institutions—on both the AID side and the university side—do not necessarily lend themselves to this kind of collaboration. The Office of Agriculture must look closely at this aspect of the new CRSP.
This suggests another theme: decentralization at the farm level, the watershed level—whatever scale is appropriate—and going beyond the experiment station and research station structure. To do this, research must be responsive to local constraints and concerns. Certain issues are clearly identifiable as major constraints of broader concern, and as such are important in gaining local and national political support for sustainable systems. A learning process must take place, not only at the scientific level, but at the policy level, in the host country's capital. This has obvious management implications.
Matters relating to data and information management and modeling must also be considered. Clearly, yield per land unit is a very useful concept, but a much broader concept is needed. The concept of maximum sustainable yield, which is used in fisheries management, can be thought of as a tool to stimulate thinking on other approaches. A flexible spatial dimension is required, one that goes beyond the plot to farm and watershed scales. Like-
wise, temporal dimensions must be carefully articulated in order to take into account fallows and intercrops and their impact on productivity and the environment. These tiers of information are rarely taken into full consideration. This broader range of factors must be weighed, however, if the scientific basis of sustainability is to be determined —if sustainability is to be understood, recorded, and monitored over time.
Another management concern relates to monitoring and feedback. The manner of working within the Office of Agriculture has not often encouraged the decentralized and interdisciplinary approach that will be essential to this new thrust. These issues need to be viewed with a different perspective. Consequently, the SANREM CRSP will require leadership to mobilize and bring about monitoring of its performance in order to keep it on track and disciplined. This will require a service dimension that builds on AID's experience in working with private voluntary organizations and the for-profit private sector. Similarly, this CRSP will entail greater networking and training responsibilities, and in this it can take advantage of previous CRSP experience.
Finally, there is the matter of leveraging resources. The Office of Agriculture knows that it cannot accomplish everything with $3.3 million a year, especially as the list of interests and concerns continues to grows. Experiences such as that of the sorghum millet CRSP, which leveraged more than twice the amount of its basic funding through entrepreneurial activities and international agricultural research centers linkages, are salutary, however. Other donors, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. foundations, will be watching this new CRSP very closely. The Congress, given its interest, will watch for short-term impacts from which broader support can be generated.
In sum, this new program will present tremendous challenges and opportunities. The Office of Agriculture has a chance to mobilize, in the true spirit of the program, the best and the brightest in the search for flexible, effective systems that can respond to the new challenges of sustainable agriculture.