Tracking the ecological soundness of farming systems: Instruments and indicators
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Many farming practices degrade agroecosystems. High external-input or modern farming tends to degrade by pollution whereas traditional, low-input systems generally tend to degrade by erosion. Smallholders in Sub-Saharan Africa, the focus of this paper, are forced to degrade their natural resource base just to keep pace with growing populations. Out of fourteen cases from Senegal, Nigeria, Gambia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Kenya only one, from Upper Machakos in Kenya, managed to restore soil fertility. Not surprisingly then, topics concerning environment and agroecosystem health find themselves getting much more attention now than ten years ago. Of particular interest are methods to evaluate and monitor changes in the ecological health or soundness of a farming system. While a number of methods exist, most are too complex for farmers to understand and operate by themselves. Not only do most methods require "experts" to run them, they also take too much of the participating farmers' time. Many of these monitoring and evaluation methods also assume a level of knowledge concerning ecologically sound farming that farmers, and many of those who advise them, often do not have. In most cases, both farmers and researchers must learn what changes to the farming system are needed to make them more ecologically sound. This paper discusses possible methodologies and presents a proposal on how to design a multistakeholder learning process for agricultural development. Methods are discussed for measuring the direct environmental impact of new farming approaches and the stakeholder partnerships that influence the outcome. Examples of possible indicators are provided for this evaluation process. Farmers can use these methods and indicators to guide the transformation of their farming systems towards a more ecologically sound future. Examples of such transformations using this approach are taken from studies of smallholder farmers in Ghana and Malawi. Two conclusions are drawn. One conclusion is that ecological soundness can bring economic growth and secondly, learning requires special social processes and institutional structures to be effective.
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