Integrated agriculture: not an option but an imperative
Dr Clive Lightfoot is Director of the Information Centre for Low External Input and Sustainable Agriculture (ILEIA) in the Netherlands, a post he took up in 1995. Previously he was Head of Integrated Resources Management at the International Centre for Living Aquatic Resources Management (ICLARM) in the Philippines. His interest and experience in tropical agricultural farming systems and farmer participatory research goes back more than 20 years.
For a number of years now farming systems in developing countries have been undergoing a re-evaluation. Both over-stretched traditional systems and green revolution high input, high output regimes, are now being recognized as not having the best long-term solutions for feeding growing populations and managing natural resources. Integrated agriculture, as the future form of farming, is not just an option but an imperative.
To most agricultural development professionals, integrated agriculture is going one step beyond commodity-based improvements to agriculture. It is recognizing that there are links between livestock and crops; between fish and crops; and between trees and livestock. So integrated agriculture for most of us is the study of two or more components of a farm and how they work together. The importance of integration is the general need for a much more productive form of farming that will also conserve the natural resource base. This means ensuring the efficiency of current systems in the way nutrients and pesticides are used and using soil and water conservation techniques.
Is it enough for scientists to improve just two components of the farming system, or do we need to look at improving simultaneously many components of the farm? We have to think in terms of rehabilitating water resources and regenerating soils; diversifying the crops, animals and trees grown; and increasing the nutrient flows within the farming system. How trees, goats, vegetables and fish can fit into the farming system becomes an important question. This is the broad picture of integrated agriculture, looking at all the natural resources that are available, all of the species that are used, and seeing how they all interact together. This picture is also dynamic. It is not just to stay with one way of doing things but to evolve and meet the unforeseen.
Is it enough for scientists to develop new farming systems, or do we need to look at how farmers can lead the development process? Their leadership not only ensures that all of the good elements of agriculture that were known and used in the past are maintained; but it also advances their empowerment. Integrated and traditional agriculture, by their very nature, are multi-faceted operations which require a variety of skills; skills that perhaps have been allowed to lapse. Now these varied skills need to be revived. The farmer of the future is going to be much more skilled and more knowledgeable. These skills and this knowledge can only come from a union between formal and traditional knowledge systems. The learning curve needed to farm for the future is much steeper for farmers and scientists alike: one is looking at a very professional team of resource managers for the population and for the future.
Development and research workers must reverse their attitudes and behaviour in order to assist farmers to transform their agriculture. Knowing when to listen and when to talk, when to learn and when to teach, when to intervene and when not to, is far harder than it sounds. In many cases expectations will need to be changed. Grain yields will drop when leaves are used for livestock feed. To some technologists, this is simply unacceptable. That integrated agriculture is not for every farm in every setting makes matters even harder. Even though most countries can point to a place where traditional integrated systems still survive, or a place where a 'green acre' of permaculture supported by an NGO or special project exists, few can be scaled-up to cover significant numbers of farms. We have yet to determine how and where integration can play a role on farms or in more marginal areas.
One reason why we do not see people working with integrated agriculture is because the different components of government research, extension and donor organizations pursue sectoral or commodity goals. To achieve integrated agriculture we have to have an agriculture working with fisheries, fisheries working with forestry and agricultural research working with extension in both public and private sectors. Organizational goals must go beyond considerations of performance of a commodity or a species and look at the wider issues. Too often rewards and ministerial budget increases are given to those who want to see their particular commodity double in production rather than to those who are concerned about an ecologically sensible way of farming that hands on an environment that people will find productive in future years.
The extent to which integrated agriculture is going to move forward is, however, only partly in the hands of development workers - and still less farmers. The larger part is with those who set subsidies. Resource-poor farmers cannot and should not be expected to bear the restoration costs alone. Nor should they be expected to bear the costs of managing a nation's natural resources for its next generation. Wise government might better subsidize a form of agriculture that provides sustainability than subsidize single commodity production or, worse still, let a free commodity market mine the natural resource base. That is why integrated agriculture is an imperative.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of CTA.
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