Agricultural growth in the latter half of the 20th century has contributed significantly to economic development and poverty reduction in developing countries, with over 80% of rural people globally, still depending on agriculture for their living. In the face of rapidly growing and urbanising populations, developing countries have an urgent need to ensure food security. However, issues such as water shortages, land degradation, loss of biodiversity, increasing dependence on chemical fertilisers and pesticides and climate change, continue to be on-going threats to sustainable agricultural development. Policy makers therefore need the ability to assess the potential intended and unintended impacts of their policies on agricultural sustainability if developing countries are to ultimately ensure food security. This thesis targets this need by reviewing current methods of agricultural sustainability assessment, developing a systemic approach to sustainability assessment and applying this to evaluate the potential consequences of current agricultural development policy in Vietnam on the sustainability of small-scale farming systems within Hoa Binh Province.
To date, indicator-based approaches have been the predominant methods of agricultural sustainability assessment. The main weakness of these is that they tend to assess the outcomes of agricultural systems and reveal little about the root causes of these outcomes because the underlying drivers of agricultural sustainability, as well as the driver–indicator interactions, are not sufficiently addressed. This means indicator-based approaches are not particularly useful in evaluating the consequences of proposed policies.
To address the need to understand sustainability driver-indicator interactions, this research began with a review of agricultural sustainability drivers and indicators of relevance to developing countries. The review found that food sufficiency and income generation are particularly important agricultural sustainability indicators, along with water availability, soil fertility, the dependence on external inputs, and access to services. The review also identified a number of natural, demographic, socio-economic, and institutional and management drivers that influence these sustainability indicators. Rapidly growing populations, land tenure security, changing food consumption patterns, access to markets, infrastructure and technology, institutional capacities, and global warming were among these.
Following the review, this research then assessed the local relevance of potential sustainability indicators and drivers through two workshops held in Hoa Binh Province, one held at the provincial level with government officers and researchers and one held at the household level with village officials and farmers. A set of criteria were used within the workshops to select the most appropriate drivers and indictors for the study area. The research then collected data for selected drivers and indicators from 450 households across 5 districts within Hoa Binh Province through a stratified random sampling survey. Survey data was subjected to stepwise multiple regression analysis in order to identify statistically significant relationships among drivers and indicators. The stepwise regressions identified a set of significant drivers for each indicator, as well as a set of significant relationships among drivers and among indicators. These relationships, along with the survey data, were then used to construct a systems model, in the form of a Bayesian Network, to test for synergistic and antagonistic interactions among drivers and indicators. These interactions were used to assess the potential sustainability consequences of current agricultural development policy in Vietnam. The results of the modelling were finally used to develop a dynamic hypothesis about the system structures and archetypes driving agricultural system behaviour within Hoa Binh Province and the implications of these for agricultural sustainability and policy.
The research found household location, education level, labour availability, ethnicity, crop yield and crop management practices to be highly connected drivers within Hoa Binh agricultural systems, influencing several other drivers and indicators directly or indirectly. Therefore policies targeted at these areas are likely to have broad systemic effects on sustainability performance. However, due to the connected nature of the system, there is potential for unexpected policy consequences, necessitating an analysis of the interactive effects among drivers and indicators.
Interaction analysis performed using the Bayesian Network model revealed that non-additive synergistic and antagonistic interactions were dominant, accounting for up to 82% of all indicator-driver interactions tested. The dominance of non-additive interactions suggests that the potential for unexpected policy outcomes is high. One example of this relates to the current policy of input subsidies and the provision of financial credit to poor rural households within Vietnam. Interaction analysis found that the use of credit by poorly educated households had a significant synergistic effect on the use of chemical fertilisers, meaning that poorly educated households using credit had a much higher than expected chance of using fertilisers at rates above the Vietnam national average. Therefore the policy of providing poor households with access to credit, while well-intentioned, may have the unexpected consequence of chemical fertiliser overuse, which has sustainability consequences such as nutrient leaching and runoff, and the development of external input dependent farming systems.
A key limitation of the interaction analysis is that it did not address the system structures and feedback loops that influence agricultural systems behaviour over time. Based on patterns of behaviour, and the relationships among drivers and indicators identified from statistical analysis and modelling, this research mapped the feedback loops believed to be driving behaviour within Hoa Binh agriculture. This resulted in the identification of two key system archetypes: shifting the burden and fixes that fail. Shifting the burden can explain the growing dependence of Hoa Binh agriculture on chemical fertilisers to maintain soil fertility, while fixes that fail can explain the growing use of chemical pesticides to manage pests and diseases, as well as the trend of increasing agricultural intensification and deforestation to maintain crop yields. The implication of these system structures for policy is that the Vietnamese government’s focus on increasing food production via subsidised seeds, fertilisers and pesticides, and the provision of credit, is potentially counterproductive to long-term agricultural sustainability and food security. These policies, while improving productivity in the short-term, may be fixes that create side effects which ultimately undermine sustainability and food security in the long term. The key lesson for policy makers is to avoid these quick fixes and focus more on fundamental solutions, such as policies that encourage the use of organic fertilisers and crop rotations, in conjunction with the judicious use of chemical fertilisers to manage soil fertility and the use the of crop rotations and pest resistant crop varieties, in conjunction with the judicious use of chemical pesticides to manage pests and diseases. Ultimately there are limits to growth and agricultural productivity cannot grow indefinitely to meet the growing demand for food. Therefore, policies that reduce the pressure on agricultural systems to continually grow will be needed to ensure food security. These policies are likely to be outside of the domain of traditional agricultural policy making and include population control and shifting the food consumption preferences of people away from products that require large areas of land and/or high inputs of nutrients and water.