Nov 6, 2009

Sustainable Agriculture in Developing Countries and The Green Revolution

Sustainable Agriculture in Developing Countries and The Green Revolution

How should the USA promote sustainable agriculture practices in developing countries?

We need to take a holistic approach to encouraging “developing” countries to better use their resources. I suggest that the term “developing” is filled with bias and assumption. I have never been quite sure what the country cited is supposed to develop, but I have some suggestions below where we could help.

Continuous Education

The United States should be supportive of programs for environmental and agro-ecosystem education. Use teaching techniques and practices for soil building, seed saving, water conservation and localized resource management, including the schools to empower the youngest children with the knowledge of good gardening practices.

Education allows people to advance socially and economically. It increases the capable labor pool for labor-intensive development, reducing poverty (Weaver, J. H., Rock, M. T., & Kusterer, K. C.,1997).


The US should promote low-tech solutions that use local materials, animal labor over machinery, integrated livestock with rotational grazing, and diverse crops. Conventional agricultural practices should be limited in any way they require outside inputs and increased overhead. Practices with the highest potential include: Intercropping, Crop Rotation, Agroforestry, Sylv-pastures, Green Manuring, Conservation Tillage, and Biological Controls with Integrated Pest Management (Conway-Barber, 1990).. Small farms should be encouraged to get the most people working the land and learning the skills needed to grow food on their own. Sustainable practices tailored to the ecology of the regions would teach the different solutions used for each type of terrain, climate and ecology.

Material and Resources

Material to build infrastructure is many times sold or imported from other areas. Sustainable practices should include the increased capacity of the local areas to become self reliant in raw materials needed for structures and facilities (Stuertz, Mark 2002). A methodology should encourage using the materials that are locally renewable and the incorporate the skills to use them. Small and slow solutions would build a functioning community of skilled labor and empowered citizens.

I disagree with Weaver, Rock, and Kusterer’s book, Achieving Broad-Based Susatainable Development. It seems from the book and title, that the goal is not sustainable agriculture, but sustained development itself. “…rural industrialization is the key to agricultural transformation” (140). They focus on agriculture as a resource foot stool for bigger industry rather than the foundation for wealth and health. “Ultimately, most of them want to get out of low-income agriculture altogether” (141). This comes from economic forces and government policy, not tradition or culture.


Can the USA do anything without spending billions of dollars and in that sense actually manage the outcomes? It would seem most funding is a subsidy to the agricultural industry for machinery and chemicals and little goes into the education of indigenous people about their own land's indigenous capacity. Funding massive projects to achieve quick results only serves to delay the infrastructure needed to build self-sustaining capacity on the ecological level. The long term success I have seen has been achieved by individuals on a village level after learning techniques that slowly build resources that are self-renewing. Sustainable agriculture is self-funding in the way it builds capacity with the same resources used to start it.

In Thailand, the new Prince is encouraging the rebuilding of old terraces to put old fileds into production, but at the same time offers free of charge to the locals, saplings and fruit trees from his nursery. With the expansion of seashore development and the diplacement of locals to the inner hills, Thailand is using the displaced labor force to build agricultural capacity (Chris Shanks,2009). The goals of the individual, village, state, nation and corporation diverge with each level of detachment and with that, increase the expense and investment. The individual needs food and modest income. The village needs commerce and community resources to trade or sale to businesses for a tax base funding community services of the most basic level (roads, public transportation, medical services, education, and local government). Each entity requires larger sums of cash and larger sources of revenue as they outsource to the next level. The small farmer is not in this picture as corporate farms supply the "tax” base and export revenue to the national treasury. Unfortunately for national exports (colonialism) the small farmers are better served to the nation as laborers rather than growers.

Corporate Oversight

In the early centuries of colonialism, European nations dominated the international export scene by subjugating weaker and source rich countries; exporting the resources on large ships while subverting the native people to their aims. Over time the multinational corporation has taken over that role, profiting from foreign policies, or lack thereof of their homeland and that of the nation state they engage. Governments and leaders make contracts with the corporations, returning little benefit to the citizens and many times put them at risk environmentally such as in Bhopal India with Union-Carbide or economically and physically like with the African cotton famine (L.E. Hall, 2007). Serious oversight and environmental policy needs to be addressed concerning multinational corporations and their business practices, but cultural and physical health of the people is the responsibility of the local government.


Land Grant Universities have been researching agriculture since their inception. It can be stated that the majority of research is focused on plant genetics and chemical soil amendments. In the year 2000 the United States spent 3.8 Billion dollars on agricultural research (Pardey, P.G., 2006). Where as techniques have changed little with regards to use of larger machinery, capital investments are pointed towards large tracts of land being cultivated efficiently in less time. The research funds for perennial crops, soil restoration and small farm practices are minimal. Sufficient examples of small farm practices that have sustained soil health and fertility exist outside conventional farming, but do not support a corporate ROI (return on investment). I disagree with Weaver, Rock, and Kusterer’s book, Achieving Broad-Based Susatainable Development. It seems from the book and title that the goal is not sustainable agriculture, but sustained development itself. “…rural industrialization is the key to agricultural transformation” (140).

Critisism of the Green Revolution

Dependence on monoculture crops

The green revolution is dependent on a selective monoculture seed supply and their associated Agra-chemical compliment. Diversity is not a positive element in a commodity based agriculture system. Large harvests for an economy of scale, efficient transportation and processing require predictable and homogeneous shipments. Also the Green Revolution was not designed as a one size fits all solution. Green technologies imported to Africa failed. The natural and and labor infrastructure did not exist for large monocrop industrial agriculture (Weaver, J. H., Rock, M. T., & Kusterer, K. C. 1997).

Dependence on external sources of input.

The Green revolution needed many supporting elements to succeed. Especially after a soil was depleted, the crops did not renew fertility and a coercive dependence on externally supplied fertilizers made growers beholden to outside "experts" and produced copious amounts of toxic waste from agriculture chemicals. Through the transport, storage, manufacture and application of agricultural chemicals; wells, air and land was polluted with the byproducts and misapplied chemicals. Community resources were diminished as local knowledge was ignored.

Heavy indebtedness among subsistence farmers

In Mexico Cargill traded farmers their indigenous and open pollinated seed for the Cargill hybrid corn seed. In time the farmers were totally at the mercy of agra-chemical companys for fertilizers and pesticides as the new corn extracted higher levels of nitrogen and nutrients from the soil in its success.

In Pakistan, unexpected high yields effected availability of harvest, transport and storage facilities (Stuertz, Mark, 2002).

Potential exports raises local prices

In Venezuela, Cargill exports commodities and then sells it back to Venezuela buyers at a higher price. Exportation of goods is colonialism. (Carter Meland, Lecturer American Indian Studies UMN Twin Cities). Local farmers cannot compete with market prices set so low by corporate farms and fail due to economic pressure rather than social or proficiency. The citizens lose local resources at local pricing while the farmers lose on both sides paying more for inputs and getting less for crops.

Unsustainable Farming Practices

Long-term sustainability is questionable due to the external pressures for high yields and a shortsighted ecological view. Although Productivity is define as, "...the output of valued product per unit of resources input", (Conway and Barber, 1990), the real cost of production should included eroded soil, loss of fertility, and contaminated wells. The Green Revolution system promotes imports of resources via profit-based vendors. Cheap fossil fuels allow for transfer and development of chemical based agricultural systems regardless of the long term effects. The growing area is amended and used as a medium for combining the components for fertility rather than a maintainable source of fertility. Until the production of crops is seen as a closed loop of soil building crop cycles, the soil will continue to be depleted (Conway and Barber (104) 1990).


Less farmland is needed due to increased yields. Yet land continues to be cleared as the farmers transitioned to an export based income. Insentives from government and agro-chemical companies encouraged farmers to over extend their finances and natural capacity. Irrigation accounts for 91% of water use on Java (Conway and Barber (104) 1990). These non-native hybrids, monocultures and soil depleting practices required additional fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides from the suppliers. It should be said that most environmental damage (in east asia at least) is due to government pricing policies, which did not account for its total cost and ecouraged over use of fertilizers (Weaver, J. H., Rock, M. T., & Kusterer, K. C. 1997).

My Model

My modelis not very time senstitve. It is not government or corporate friendly, but it does take into account the massive needs of urban areas with little plantable grounds. It focuses on the local needs first and then the surplus crops being delivered to an ever expanding ring of community. I suggest small local farms delivering collectively within five to twenty miles depending on the infrastructure and soil capacity.

These small bio-intensive farms would grow vegetable crops with integrated livestock and use systems that are tailored to their niche. Farms would divide up their yields for maximum diversity in plants and output in annual crops and perennial plants, which need less maintenance. Seasonal planting would generate food, fiber, traditional medecinal plants, and fodder for livestock. Multilayered overstories would partition the sun, water and soil to decrease cultivated acreage promote tree crops. Rebuilding or establishing forests is the long-term goal and key to increasing the soil organic matter and watershed capacity.

Water collection and storage issues are problematic in many areas. Seasons of drought with intermittant rains require systems that will buffer the weather extremes during the growing season. Swales, keylines, pits, ponds and cisterns would be key design drivers in the planning a self-sustaining agro-ecosystem.

Seasons of rest for fields would allow for some crop harvesting, but center on the soil building necessary for prolonged and improved cultivation use legumes and nitrogen scavenging plants.

The human use of land includes the cultural aspects of the people. Traditions, ceremonies and ethics must be respected when building new agricultural systems. Principals may need to be taught, but solutions need to come from the indigeonous intellect. Empowering the local community to use their own creativity to solve problems and integrate with other communities will outlive imported programs and develop a new awareness for long-term sustainability. I would also include the principles of Permaculture (Mollison, B. C. 1988, Holmgren, D. 2002.).

Permaculture is a holistic approach to design and production of yields for human needs. It incorporates observation, integration and systems thinking to preserve and leverage existing resources. Permaculture has been the foundation for my sustainable design since my return to the land as a source of food, water and heat. Its principles are sound guidance at all levels of decision-making and implemetation. Using Permaculture, I am gardening to meet my needs while ensuring future generations have the resources to fulfill their needs. Native people can use the existing resources to build their capacity and sustainable independence.


Conway, G.R. , Barber, E.B., After the Green Revolution, 1990, Earth Scan Publications Limited, London

L.E. Hall, Starvation in Africa, 2007, The Rosen Publishing Group, NY, NY

Stuertz, Mark. Dallas Observer. 5 December 2002

Shanks, Chris, Conversation (2009,) Panya Project, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Weaver, J. H., Rock, M. T., & Kusterer, K. C. (1997). Achieving broad-based sustainable development : Governance, environment, and growth with equity. West Hartford, Conn.: Kumarian Press.

Pardey, P.G., (2006), Agricultural research: a growing global divide?, International Food Policy Research Institute

Holmgren, D. (2002). Permaculture : Principles & pathways beyond sustainability. Hepburn, Vic.: Holmgren Design Services.

Mollison, B. C. (1988). Permaculture : A designers' manual. Tyalgum, Australia: Tagari.


gaiapunk said...

Great analysis! I totally agree with you about the wasteful spending of our government on genetically modified foods while little is done to recover agricultural waste and rebuild soil.

For more good permaculture reading check out

Christine said...

Someday I want help people develop low impact agriculture in the US and/or developing countries. I am studying environmental science and am thinking about mastering in agriculture- or some kind of permaculture/ forest design agriculture degree. However, I am having difficulty finding this kind of job or even educational opportunities. Do you have any sugestions on where to work?

Daniel Halsey said...

Hi Christine,
the college education is extremely helpful in Permaculture design. Especially when really working the science of design into the concepts that Permaculture promotes. I have recently finished my Masters in horticulture at the University of Minnesota, And have found the resources at an agricultural research University to be priceless. I did not follow the standard horticulture or agriculture track. Most universities and colleges have independent or self designed degree programs. I believe that people like you and me are on the cutting-edge of what will be the standard practices for agricultural and horticultural education in the future. We are systems thinkers. We want to bring in multiple disciplines and solutions that cross many academic boundaries. At my university they have an intra-college program that combines the studies of 2 to 3 different silos in education. The Masters program that I was in was primarily self-directed, although there were dozens of choices for classes that I could take. In a more recent entry in my blog here you will find the courses I suggest at the University of Minnesota for a degree in Permaculture for sustainable agriculture. I look forward to further discussion. Thank you for asking, Dan

Permaculture and Polyculture Consulting and Design

Permaculture and Polyculture Consulting and Design
Getting to know your property, the plants you have and those you can grow, is a fulfilling endeavor. With most I am the steward of the land. I give them good soil biology and they do the rest. If I group them in cohesive plant communities, they respond with greater yields. If I encourage the micro-organisms (Fungus and bacteria) , the roots obsorb more nutrients making a pest and disease resistant plant. A stronger plant that gives us more organic food and takes less energy.

A Ten Acre Farm Transformed to an Edible Forest Garden

A Ten Acre Farm Transformed to an Edible Forest Garden
Self Renewing Fertility, Soil Building, Water Catchment, Tea Trail Swale, Erosion Control and Native American Medicinals