Sustainable Extension

What is Sustainability? In a general sense, the answer seems straightforward: Something is sustainable if it can go on forever. A farming system is sustainable if the inputs it requires will always be available and if those components of the physical environment on which the system depends remain undamaged. Development is sustainable if it can be maintained without the continual injection of outside resources. Successful systems must also be adaptable to outside factors to survive.

The Brundtland Commission defined sustainable development in 1987 as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." If that definition is applied to agricultural development, an immediate concern is whether the physical environment can continue to support current or increasing production levels.

There are important social, economic and institutional issues involved in sustainability as well. From a social perspective, agricultural development must provide sustainable livelihoods for low-income households in rural areas. An economic perspective points to the need for farming systems to generate sufficient returns to justify the resources used. Institutional issues focus on the ability of the supporting infrastructure to guarantee supplies of necessary inputs to farmers, including land, credit, nutrients, information and advice. In some areas, for example, efforts to improve the sustainability of farms are hampered by land tenure arrangements which deny poorer families secure access to land. The institutional structure must also support the agricultural knowledge and information system which includes farmers' existing knowledge and abilities.

A concern has arisen over the sustainability of extension systems. This is due partly to the disappointment with the performance of national, publicly funded extension services based on the training and visit model and partly to their high cost. Thus we are faced with a dual challenge: to promote agricultural development that is sustainable and to develop sustainable extension systems.

Changes Needed

If extension is to move successfully from a concern with production to a concern with the sustainability of farming systems, it will need to change the way it is perceived, organized and practiced. In particular, recent project experience suggests that changes may be needed in:

  • extension methods and approaches
  • organizational structures
  • content of extension advice
  • approaches to program targeting
  • training of extension workers
  • attitudes towards farmers' existing knowledge and practices.

    Above all, where sustainability becomes a priority, more decisions about land and resource use must be made not just by individual farmers, but at a community level. Extension workers will find themselves increasingly involved in group formation, negotiation, conflict reconciliation and working in multidisciplinary teams, with less time devoted to the promotion of changes in farming practices with individual farmers.

    The organizational structure of extension agencies may also need rethinking. The problem of soil erosion and other forms of degradation, for example, cuts across the activities of different sectorial agencies and thus requires effective mechanisms to coordinate their efforts. In addition, organizations must learn from their own experiences and be responsive to changes in the external environment. National extension services need to decentralize decision making to regional and district levels if research and extension systems are to respond to the challenge of improving small-scale family farms.

    Perhaps the most obvious area for change is the technical content of extension advice. Sustainability demands advice and information to match the complexity of the productivity and environmental problems facing farmers. For example, the sustainable correction of soil nutrient deficiencies may call for complex measures to recycle organic matter within a farming system rather than simple applications of fertilizers. Agricultural projects must also consider environmental and socioeconomic diversity, thus making flexibility and adaptability basic requirements of sustainable extension.

    As for the targeting of extension programs, because women have a particularly important role as 'environmental managers,' agricultural extension should consider gender differences and develop approaches that build on womens' environmental knowledge. Moreover, many environmental problems such as degradation caused by common grazing affect the poorest households most severely. Such households are least able to invest in resource conserving - or enhancing - technologies. The need for low-cost, low-risk technology is particularly acute for them.

    The training of extension workers should also be revised. Extension workers need to be able to identify and analyze the complex web of factors underlying food production. Communication skills must be refined if extensionists are to work with groups and communities to implement participatory methods. The role of extension workers will become one of facilitating learning rather than imparting information.

    Finally, an appreciation of how farmers' existing knowledge can be built into the design of project interventions and extension programs is indispensable to sustainability.

    Extension Research

    In different settings and for a variety of reasons, extension practitioners have found that sustainability requires a shift in thinking about extension. Working with groups, farmer-to-farmer extension, collaboration with NGOs and decentralization of power to allow freedom for field-based personnel are approaches being tried out in various parts of the world. Indicators must be identified to evaluate the impact of such approaches to promote sustainable agriculture and sustainable extension. Examination, revolution in thought, and actual change in extension practices are not only desirable but necessary if farmers around the world are to adopt sustainable agriculture. Garforth, Chris. 1993. Sustainable Extension for Sustainable Agriculture: Looking for new directions.
    Rural Extension Bulletin 3 pp. 4-10.


    Dr. Chris Garforth
    AERDD, University of Reading
    3 Earley Gate, The University
    Whiteknights Road
    Reading, RG6 2AL, UK
    Tel: 44-734-318119/318365
    Fax: 44-734-261244