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Ingredients of sustainable farming systems and issues to be considered in the design of these systems

The overall objective of agricultural or farming system design and management is the creation of environmental conditions that remain favourable for crop and animal production or even increase their productivity in perpetuity while at the same time minimizing adverse impacts on the resource base or, where possible, enhancing it. Consequently, it is necessary in any effort at designing sustainable farming systems to begin with:

In addition to the various causes of unsustainability indicated in figure 4.1, or the characteristics of resources and inputs which may, in association with certain practices cause unsustainability for which remedies are given (table 4.2), there are overall general issues that need to be taken into account in designing sustainable agricultural systems. These include:

Table 4.2 Selected Sustainable Agriculture Resource Input Features and Practices, Effects and Remedies

Resource characteristic Practice or factor contributing to unsustainability Ameliorating or restoration technology or practice
1. Land tenure Lack of security of tenure Secure land permanently or for period that commodity is in field
2. Land use Absence of plan or agreement on plan Start as early as possible to get authorities thinking of and evolving plan
Land in dispute Early settlement before use, especially for perennial crops
3. Vegetation management Use of heavy mechanical equipment Selective mechanization, e.g. use of shear blade and partially mechanized clearing; avoid very heavy equipment
Avoid burning large amount of dry biomass for long periods at high temperatures
Overgrazing Relate stocking rate to pasture condition; use rotational grazing and fence partitioning
Relate all land use to the capability
4. Soils:
(a) Structural damage or decline Fire pasture Early burning of limited dry biomass
Excessive or mechanical cultivation Develop appropriate fire management for specific land use requirement
Fallowing and bare soil; overgrazing and loss of cover; machinery and animal traffic Ensure adequate cover by vegetation or mulch
Rotational grazing and cover management
Relate tillage and stocking rate to pasture condition and soil type
(b) Acidification nutrient loss No lime used on acid soil; use of acidifying fertilizers Lime application if possible and
Use most appropriate recommendations
Use of resistant or acid tolerant varieties
(c) Erosion Removal of vegetation cover and exposure of soil Retention of vegetation cover by stocking adjustment, good pasture and/or wildlife management, stubble mulch - rough surface retention
Degradation resulting from poor cultivation technique Use of reduced or minimal tillage, deep ripping, pasture rotation and measures to rejuvenate fragile soil
Use of wind-breaks and alley cropping
Adoption of land use that is not compatible or does not match capability of land Improvement of capability assessment and better matching of use to it
5. Fire management Uncontrolled use of fire in clearing, hunting, pasture management, etc. Controlled use of fire; early burning in pasture management and to maintain desired species composition
6. Water quality Inadequate drainage, waste and effluent water disposal Improved engineering works to carry drainage water and effluent from animal housing; provision of sanitary inspection to enforce laws
Contamination of surface and groundwater by fertilizer and pesticides This is not of common occurrence and is limited to a few large-scale "modern" farms
Care in use of pesticides near open water
Measures to minimize access of chemicals to groundwater
Use suitable fertilizer type and method of application to increase uptake
Apply fertilizer in amounts needed by crops as determined by analysis
Sediment and salt run-off into surface water Better management to minimize soil erosion and salinity
7. Soil salinity, water- logging (irrigated agriculture) Inefficient/excessive water use by flooding, too frequent irrigation, low infiltration Improved water scheduling
Conjunctive reuse of groundwater
Drainage and gypsum to improve infiltration
Inadequate/deteriorating infrastructure Improved water distribution networks
Poor site selection for irrigation areas Soil selection should be consistent with soil and land capability
8. Soil salinity (dryland) Excessive clearing of deep-rooted perennials causing rise in groundwater levels Identification and revegetation of recharge areas
Strategic tree and shrub planting/management
Use of deep rooted perennials wherever possible
9. Use of monoculture crops Reliance on a single crop without rotation or use of row crops Better to use tested and row rotations
Use mixed crop sequences rather than just row sole crops
10. Pesticide residues resistance Overreliance and persistent use of pesticides Use of integrated pest and management
Overreliance on chemical control of crop weeds Biological control of pests
Selection of genetically resistant species
Low pesticide use farming
Use of biodegradable pesticides
Use of rotations to reduce pest, weed or pathogen infestation

Sources: Adapted from SCA (1991) and Lal and Okigbo (1990).

Table 4.3 Yield in Gram Equivalents and Percentage of Crop Land for Various Levels of Production Inputs in the World

Farming system or technology input level Yield t/ha Crop land (%) Average area of arable land needed (ha/caput)
Shifting cultivation <0.1 2 2.6
Low traditional 0.8 28 1.2
Moderate traditional 1.2 35 0.6
Improved traditional 2 10 0.17
Moderate technological 3 10 0.11
High technological 5 10 0.08
Specialized technological 7 5 0.05

Source: FAO (1991b).

Sectorial interface requirements

However appropriate and realistic the design of a sustainable farming system may be, it is necessary to ensure that threats to it from other sectors are eliminated or significantly minimized. For example, poor road construction could result in flooding, eutrophication and erosion, all of which can seriously damage farm land and even fish-ponds or stream fisheries. A related example is a policy issue such as structural adjustment aimed at increasing export earnings or at reducing debt burdens. This may result in a lot of forest areas being cleared for the commercial row-growing crops, which will expose the soil to erosion. Similarly, removal of subsidies may result in farmers not using fertilizers which, in turn, will result in environmental degradation. Therefore, designing sustainable agricultural or farming systems and adhering to the design alone will not ensure sustainability unless policies, strategies, technologies, systems and components of resource management, and input/technology use in other sectors such as forestry, fisheries, animal production, manufacturing industries, tourism and management of nature reserves and trade are designed to ensure sustainability in development devoid of adverse impacts on the other sectors. A few examples of sectoral activities in one sector which affect other sectors are presented below:

Uncontrolled expansion of agricultural land reduces land available for reserves, forestry and other multiple land use requirements.

All these call for not only integrated land use planning but also adoption of a holistic approach in development planning, in policy formulation and in selecting strategies and the execution of development programmes. The earlier we pay attention to these, the better.

Conclusions and recommendations

In designing sustainable agricultural production systems, it is necessary to give due consideration to the characteristics of various resources used in production, the ways they are managed or manipulated in the production process and the technologies and practices which render the resultant production system unsustainable. Unsustainability results when impacts of practices and technologies used are economically not feasible and sometimes also culturally unacceptable. In addition to the selection of methods for manipulation of resources and use of practices and technologies which ensure sustainability, there is a need to ensure that other sectoral activities do not render the farming systems unsustainable. At the same time measures must be taken to ensure that various accelerators of agricultural development and factors which ensure enabling the environment for agricultural production for a majority of farmers are present. These include:

The effectiveness of these are accelerated by:

Recommendations on Principles for Designing Sustainable Farming Systems in Tropical Africa

In designing sustainable farming systems there are five principles or objectives that should be aimed at, namely:

  1. maintenance or enhancement of farm productivity in the long term;
  2. amelioration, minimization or avoidance of adverse impacts on natural resource base for agriculture and associated ecosystem;
  3. minimization of residues from chemicals in agriculture or of adverse effects of practices;
  4. maximization of the net social benefit derived from farming, which involves considering net social benefits of agriculture when positive and negative effects are considered and making such choices among alternatives as to maximize benefits by using certain production systems and practices; and
  5. rendering farming systems sufficiently flexible to manage risks associated with vagaries of climate and markets (SCA 1991).

Guidelines for Designing Sustainable Systems

The main guidelines to follow in designing sustainable agricultural systems are to:

Table 4.4 Different Operations Performed during Different Stages of Crop Production and Utilization and Extent of Likely Erosion Hazard Involved

Operations at different stages of crop production and utilization Extent of possible erosion hazardsa
Clearing Very high
Land development High
Tillage and pre-planting cultivations High
Planting Low
Subsequent soil management Low
Water management Low-high
Fertilization Low
Weeds, pest and disease management Negligible-high
Harvesting Medium-high
Primary processing (e.g., shelling, winnowing) Negligible
Drying None
Storage None
Processing None
Packaging None
Preparation None
Consumption None
Waste disposal Low-medium

Source: Okigbo (1985,1993).
a. Extent of erosion hazard depends on interaction of operations with environment and other factors.

The above principles and guidelines are by no means exhaustive but they are illustrative of the principles and procedures involved in determining: the management schedules; the manipulations of resources; and the input orches tration in amounts, sequences and timing in order to satisfy objectives in pro ducing desirable levels of food, fibre, and other products or otherwise satisfy ing the farmers' objectives. The design can only operate with success where there is an appropriate policy umbrella in the presence of all the accelerators of agricultural development and compatibility among all sectors.


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