Sustainable Agriculture News

Adoption of Technologies for Sustainable Agriculture

The adoption of technologies for sustainable farming systems is a challenging and dynamic issue for farmers, extension services, agri-business and policy-makers. The agricultural sector needs to employ a wide range of evolving technologies and farm practices across many different farming systems and structures to meet a variety of changing and heterogeneous demands from consumers and the public for food, fiber and other goods and services provided by agriculture, often with uncertain outcomes in terms of their effects on sustainability.

Demand is driving the adoption of technologies. Farmers have always looked to new technologies as a way to reduce costs. In addition, higher incomes, greater knowledge and improved channels of communication are leading consumers to demand low-cost food of higher quality increasingly produced through organic methods in many countries, with more variety, consistency and year-round availability. The process of trade liberalization is widening the sources of supply and the degree of competition. The changing demands are reflected in policies and are powerfully transmitted to farmers by the media, pressure groups, food retailers and processors.

The different priorities and concerns related to achieving sustainable agriculture have resulted in a range of approaches and levels at which they are implemented. Some countries rely heavily on market signals and voluntary co-operative industry-led approaches to guide the development, dissemination and adoption of technologies. Others place a greater emphasis on government intervention. Such government involvement ranges from a facilitating to a mandatory role, and includes direct funding for research, payments for dissemination and adoption, legal restrictions, information and advice. The overall context of agricultural policies and the level of support is a key factor in determining which technologies are adopted at the farm level and in which locations at the farm level.

Research efforts, farmer education and training, advice and information are shifting towards balancing economic efficiency with environmental and social sustainability. Historically, the focus of research and advice was to increase production, productivity and profits, whereas now the emphasis is on achieving those aims in a sustainable way, which often implies changing farm practices and using different technologies. Agriculture is drawing on and adapting technologies developed in or for other sectors of the economy. It is not always clear which technologies are profitable for farming to develop and which farm practices will contribute to sustainable farming systems in the long-term. In the past, research was often directed at solving technical problems; now it is also aimed at defining research priorities and best technology to address current and future demands by society. Those priorities include biological pest control, biotechnology, information technology, bioremediation, precision farming, integrated and organic farming systems.

Technologies are increasingly being developed in a global market, applied at the farm level but impacting on sustainability beyond the farm . Both conventional and newer technologies, in particular related to biotechnology, information and precision farming techniques, are global businesses. The dissemination of those technologies is often within the national market, but their application is local. However, the effects on sustainability of farm level adoption extend beyond the farm. With more vertical integration, either through formal ownership structures or contractual relations along the whole food chain, decisions on the adoption of technologies at the farm level often cannot be separated from decisions taken elsewhere in the food chain.

Adopting technologies for sustainable farming systems is multi-disciplinary . Taking into account the wider range of objectives related to moving towards a more sustainable agriculture, compared to those targeting farm production, more disciplines are having to work together.

Adopting technologies for sustainable farming systems involves uncertainty and trade-offs. Technologies that can contribute to an economically efficient farm sector and the financial viability for farmers, while improving environmental performance and which are socially acceptable, will provide “triple dividends” to sustainability. Given the scarcity of resources, however, there are invariably trade-offs in achieving these sustainability goals. Moreover, the aims are “moving targets” which must address new issues and changing priorities. Technological developments are rapidly evolving and information on the costs and benefits of adopting technologies in agriculture is often imperfect. Thus, the choices on technology adoption are made in a climate of uncertainty with a large element of “trial and error” in its application, and the speed and extent of adoption varies considerably among farmers. This can have important implications as to the structure of farms and the number of farmers that are able to survive financially in the future.

Farmers need to face the right signals for the adoption of appropriate technologies. Farmers will invest in and implement sustainable technologies and farm practices if they expect the investment will be profitable, if they have the right education, information and motivation, and if government policies set clear goals. Agricultural policies can alter, however, the prices facing farmers for their inputs and outputs, which in turn will influence their decisions on investment and can lead to unsustainable farming practices. Where the environmental benefits from employing sustainable technologies are not expected to accrue to farmers, but to people outside agriculture, and where there are no markets for the benefits, levels of adoption could be sub-optimal from a societal perspective. Equally, where the costs of environmental effects of current farming activities are paid by other sectors, farmers will have no incentive to adopt environmentally sustainable technologies.

Assessing technologies for farming systems from a sustainability perspective is in its infancy. Until recently, the impacts of farm technologies were assessed according to relatively few, generally clear and measurable criteria: production, productivity, farm incomes, employment and trade. Assessing sustainability is more complex when environmental, social and ethical considerations must be taken into account. It is often not clear what the relationships are between the various elements of sustainability, what should and can be measured, and how the results are to be interpreted so that farmers, policy-makers and other stakeholders can identify with reasonable confidence which sustainable technologies work, which channels can best facilitate their dissemination and adoption in different conditions, and at what cost and benefit.