This is What Sustainable Agriculture Looks Like

Ed note. This op-ed is from Issa Martin Bikienga, an agricultural economist who is the former agriculture minister of Burkina Faso. The article originally appeared in Project Syndicate and is reprinted with permission. 

OUAGADOUGOU – Burkina Faso is located in the heart of the Sahel, which means that it is one of the world’s most vulnerable countries when it comes to climate change. Its farmers may know little of the physical causes of global warming, but they know about its effects – not least the huge variability in rainfall patterns, from droughts to flooding, which lead to lost harvests, the erosion of pastureland, and food crises.

As a result, the concept of sustainable agriculture has been gaining ground for several years, both internationally and in Burkina Faso. The term features in political discourse and has become a key approach to global agricultural development. Indeed, sustainability is now a driving force in agriculture – and as important as productivity was in previous decades.

The concept of sustainable agriculture is inextricably linked to that of sustainable development, first defined in 1987 as a model of economic growth “that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Sustainable agriculture is defined as a type of farming that ensures that internal and external resources are used and conserved as efficiently as possible; is ecologically sound (it improves, rather than damages, the natural environment); and is economically viable, offering reasonable returns on agricultural investments.

Close scrutiny of both definitions leads us to conclude that there can be no sustainable development without sustainable agriculture. Indeed, in Burkina Faso, sustainable agriculture features prominently – as it must – in the country’s development policies and strategies.

In 2012, Burkina Faso adopted the National Policy of Sustainable Development, which has become a key tool for realizing the vision set out in the Strategy for Accelerated Growth and Sustainable Development. That vision describes “a productive economy which accelerates growth, increases living standards, improves and preserves the living environment and living conditions through wise and efficient governance.”

All stakeholders in farming in Burkina Faso broadly share a commitment to sustainable agriculture. The national conference of the General Assembly for Agriculture and Food Security, held in November 2011, embraced the following objective: “By 2025, farming in Burkina Faso will be modern, competitive, sustainable, and driving growth. It will be founded on family-owned farms and efficient agricultural businesses, and will guarantee [that] all citizens have access to the food they need to lead healthy, active lives.” Likewise, the aim of Burkina Faso’s National Program for Rural Areas is to “contribute in a sustainable way to food and nutrition security, to strong economic growth, and to reducing poverty.”

Another tried and tested agricultural practice in Burkina Faso is the integrated management of production. The goal is to improve smallholders’ productivity in a sustainable way, equipping them with the knowledge and understanding needed to operate efficiently while respecting human health and the environment. This policy has prompted behavioral changes regarding the management of natural resources and the use of agricultural inputs like pesticides.

Sustainable agriculture has changed farming in Burkina Faso for the better. Here and elsewhere, it is the key to our ability to confront climate change and build resilience against food and nutritional insecurity, because it respects the land and is far more effective in the long term than industrial farming. Moreover, sustainable practices reassert the value of small, family-run holdings, which, in countries like Burkina Faso, produce nearly all of the domestic food supply.

But countries like Burkina Faso cannot address climate change alone. Nor should they: Drought and flooding here and elsewhere occur largely because of climate imbalances caused by industrial activities that produce greenhouse gases. We are victims of a phenomenon caused mainly by developed countries – a phenomenon that is holding back our own development. If we are to take the definition of sustainable development seriously, those responsible for this outcome must also help, particularly by contributing to the adaptation costs that countries like Burkina Faso now face.