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Theory and Practice of Agricultural Indicators

of Agricultural Indicators Agricultural Sustainability: Strategies for Assessment by Gary W vanLoon, S G Patil, L B Hugar; Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2005;

Theory and Practiceof Agricultural Indicators

Agricultural Sustainability: Strategies for Assessment

by Gary W vanLoon, S G Patil, L B Hugar; Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2005; pp 281, Rs 650.


ustainable development or S D in short is a concept that has appeared much in the discourse since the celebrated report ‘Our Common Future’ made its appearance (WCED 1987). Despite all the hue and cry, progress in this direction has not been significant. While reasons for underperformance are many, not the least among them is the general inability to visualise the concept in the concrete. Traditionally, agricultural data collected and reported have been designed with growth as a targeted objective. Sustainability was not an issue; neither is there a protocol yet for data collection for sustainability assessment. Moreover, such data are often not easily quantifiable. Recognition of the deficiencies has now stimulated extensive efforts to operationalise sustainability and to measure it through appropriate data. Agricultural Sustainability: Strategies for Assessment is a book on the theory and practice of indicators in the assessment of agriculture in micro systems. In effect, the book is of immense contemporary relevance, is a contribution to the fledgling literature on indicators and will hopefully help to guide numerous current researchers and practitioners in their endeavour either to work theoretically on the subject or to make situational judgments.

The book, as proclaimed by the publisher, describes how to develop methods for evaluating and assessing the sustainable development of agricultural systems in a micro-region. The varied backgrounds of the three authors from chemistry, environmental sciences and agricultural economics arouse expectations of finding a convergence of scholarship and ideas from different disciplines that potentially benefit readers hailing also from various backgrounds. The reviewer believes that the book fulfils these promises to a large extent. Further, field level experiences of the authors underlie the theorisation. The book, well presented, is organised into four substantial chapters leading from the conceptualisation of sustainability to formulation of indicators and concluding with selected case studies.

Broader Context of SD

Chapter I introduces agricultural sustainability in the broader context of SD. It attempts to provide to any interested reader a historical account of the concept called by SD tracing the evolution of human society from a food gathering community to the modern global village, from the “preservationist” to the “conservationist” and from the Stockholm conference to the World Summit in Johannesberg. The chapter reviews the twin concepts of sustainability and development, pausing for a while on the inherent contradictions between the words, and concludes that “sustainability is an all encompassing vision

Economic and Political Weekly August 26, 2006 of what life ought to be”. With such a broad view, environment, economics and social elements are introduced as the sustainability tripod. Noting that the undertone of this introduction is broad, far transcending agriculture, one wonders why the authors decide to leave aside the debate over the “limits to growth” argument (this however is touched upon in chapter 2, with caution about “crying wolf”), the subsequent attempts to reconcile environmental concerns with economic growth, and reflections on the issue that treat development as a comprehensive concept, embracing social and environmental dimensions, as found in the works of David Prearce (absent in the bibliography). Wrong policies and institutions, backed by the failure of conventional economic theory to capture the actual values of resources, certainly add to the background of sustainability problems in general and that for agriculture in particular.

The Brundtland definition (development that meets the need of the present generation without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs) says much less than it appears to. The multiplicity of definitions to emerge subsequently disturbed the clarity of discourse and the extensive use of the word turned it into a “meta fix”. In the macrocontext, sustainability and its contradictions, although by and large recognised, could merit a richer review, going by the volumes of work that have been done in this field on greenhouse gas emission, land degradation and deforestation, over-extraction of water, genetic modification of breeds, poverty and well-being all of these are to become the bedrock for the analysis of agriculture at the micro level in later chapters. Conflict and accordance are also not in evidence in the section on the sustainability tripod and in Figures 1.1 and

1.2. In fact, the discussion is less focused and enlightening than expected.

Narrowing in on agricultural sustainability, and justifying the cause with the difficulty of meeting estimated world food demand through available resources (with known technology of course), the chapter turns to agro-ecosystems. There was an opportunity to know more about the linkages between the common problems mentioned in passing and agriculture, as a background for the work to follow. For example, we might like to know how farm input use contributes to greater greenhouse gas or land degradation and the environmental implications of organic manuring with empirical examples. A more organised background study could have a well defined overview, in the direction of the assessment that needs to be made, “with a purpose” and for the better understanding of issues on the part of the reader. Despite the inadequacies, the chapter has its strong points: the boxes and diagrammatic representations that make the accounts lucid, representation of sustainability as the common area in various desirable conditions (Figure 1.1), and in the imaginative approach taken in Figure 1.6, which serves as an analytical tool later on.

Chapter 2 is excellently written and will be helpful possibly to anyone studying indicators within and outside the area of sustainability. In the process the reader has a useful guided tour through various areas of current relevance and a glimpse of the important thesis of the Club of Rome, the ecological footprint and the human development indicator (HDI). The chapter addresses readers from various specialisations and informs as well as guides with an attention to detail. It alerts the reader

Economic and Political Weekly August 26, 2006

if the need for clarity of objectives and caution on data, of the importance of local knowledge sources and the various considerations of processing data. The reader is explained in detail the procedures, drawing from contemporary practices in various fields. Examples and numerical illustrations make the account easy to understand. The authors generally direct readers to cardinal methods with a uniform scale for greater comprehensiveness but also to alternative methods to tackle less quantifiable situations by subjectively assigning scores or using ranks. However, UNDP’s method has received more appreciation for indexing. Integration of indices is discussed by taking the lead from the latest methods in the literature.

Assessing Agricultural Sustainability

In chapter 3, the central point of the book, the assessment of agricultural sustainability, is approached in great detail by covering its aspects extensively under six specified categories that purportedly make the assessment “holistic”. As demonstrated in the final chapter, this converges to a set of six separate and composite indicators. Production in agriculture is viewed as having equal significance for economic and social outcomes. The obligation to generate adequate output and income for current livelihood is as much emphasised as the need for continuity and for the future. Productivity indicators are addressed through conventional and innovative methods and in different contexts that are faced in reality. The stability factor, relating to indefinitely long periods, is examined through direct measures of statistical deviations as also the quality of supporting resources, bringing up indicators of chemical, physical and biological facets of soil and water quality. Efficiency in terms of water, nutrients and energy, the utilisation of secondary materials produced and the implications of their use as fuels, provide useful reading in general. Stress from water shortage, pest and economic hardship are broached ingeniously and categorised as durability, which we are told is related with more short-term challenges. Since categorisation of indicators is not unknown among ecologists, a close analogy with the durability aspect may be what Gordon Conway, as described in M V Nadkarni’s insightful account (Nadkarni, Indian Journal of Agricultural Economics, 1993), terms “sustainability”, i e, the robustness or the “propensity of a system to withstand collapse under stress”. For example, in the case of water shortage, the proposed indicators in this chapter look not only at groundwater levels but also at water harvesting practices. Similarly, diversification of crops or activities is viewed as a strategy to minimise the problems of crop failure.

Pest problems generate an interesting exposition. As is well appreciated, they are intimately related with human health and biodiversity. The relation may be subtle, indirect or long-term such as toxic, mutagenic and carcinogenic effects of residues on consumers, harmful effects on other species, that might be beneficial for processes like pollination and soil fertilisation, or effects on resistance cycles of targeted and non-targeted plants and animals. The relation may be immediate health effects on farmers such as skin rashes that can be more easily captured. The impact can be much more violent and probabilistic such as the Bhopal tragedy that is mentioned, which was also linked to pesticide. One revolutionary method to combat pests through genetic modification raises more difficult questions at this stage. While such issues are not underestimated, the indicators actually proposed appear to be rather simple attempts, such as measuring the average number of sprayings and the adoption of non-chemical methods that are essentially responses to costs the farmers can easily visualise. Some more thought-provoking ideas and approaches worth a trial could be provided to students now grappling with these new challenging issues.

Equity and compatibility are categories that stretch well beyond the narrow confines of agricultural production. Ranging from the distribution of irrigation water, these indicators touch interactions with others in society such as through water quality and include impacts on gender equity, income adequacy and agro-ecological diversity. The last chapter provides a few empirical examples from different countries – including the authors’ own estimation of sustainability indices in different water regimes of Tungabhadra – including an actual operationalisation of what they have proposed but in a rather summarised form, without exposing the complexities faced in execution.

A hitch in an otherwise smooth reading is the open-endedness of objectives, left to be filled up by the practitioner. The definition of agricultural sustainability the book offers and in the specifications of the six categories (p 64) there are dimensions such as “high” yields (for example an alternative “certain well defined level of performance over time” is found in Jodha’s definition). Specific “goalposts” and “benchmarks” chosen by the practitioner in each case are supposed to concretise these qualifications. The authors do emphasise the case specificity of the whole exercise and the need for arbitrariness and value judgments (“if rationale for the choice and detailed methodology are clearly described in reporting results”, comparison with other studies can be enabled). However, for scaled indicators, these goalposts and benchmarks are as important as the results themselves.

Chapters 2 and 3 are the pillars on which the book stands. The strength of the theorisation lies in the broad coverage of issues impinging on sustainable livelihoods. But, not surprisingly, the assortment of formulae also stimulates questions about inclusion, exclusion and treatment, keeping in view the stream of concerns that have now flooded the literature. It is sometimes difficult to visualise the exact nexus with agricultural sustainability when social facilities like education, which is impacted by government social programmes, or women’s cooking protocols are introduced. Perhaps what is addressed is a quality of life index that includes social goods like education and health in which public investment also has a role. This is not clear. Further, what is the role of savings (or credit) for investment in land and water management and that of stocks (excess production) when weather vagaries are inevitable? Even if input use is low, is there no role for extension or training in regard to their safe use? The use of local resources can be important for durability and equity but does that not draw attention to village commons from which organic fertilisers are often drawn? Would not dissension among stakeholders be deemed an unsustainability problem that can be avoided by suitable institutions? Elaborating on benchmarks, examples cite an ideal yield as being 1.5 times global yield (p 110) or poorest and best net income levels benchmarked by the poverty level and an arbitrary ceiling. Why 1.5 or any other multiple and why, one may ask, is there no need-based limit or an opportunity cost considered, since the global average may have little to do with the micro level yield and the poverty line, already under attack, is surely no standard for a minimum?

Perhaps the answers lie well beyond the intended scope of the book and possibly the strength of the book is to trigger many more questions among readers and practitioners than addressed.



Economic and Political Weekly August 26, 2006

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