• Chapter

Sustainable agriculture and natural resource management A policy perspective

Forests, soils, grazing lands, and water provide the necessary foundation for agricultural activity and sustain the rural economies of most developing countries. At a conceptual level, the connections between rural populations and their natural resource base include an interlinked set of biophysical, economic, and social systems. These systems co-evolve in response to human desires and needs on the one hand and to environmental health and resilience on the other. At a more practical level, the ways in which land managers adapt to their physical environment are influenced by a policy environment defined by explicit or implicit incentives and constraints. These are determined by local, regional, and national policy makers. Policy makers establish the rules for legitimate behavior, observe outcomes, and subsequently adjust policies in light of competing interests and whatever mandate they may possess. For their part, farmers adjust their behavior in response to changing needs and in reaction to shifts in prices and policies. Of course, sometimes the extent to which farmers can respond may be quite limited. Equally important is that natural systems respond to human activity, sometimes abruptly, sometimes slowly, and sometimes in unanticipated ways. The aggregate patterns we observe are jointly created and evolve through this interplay, suggesting that an essential element of any strategy aimed at promoting sustainable agriculture and natural resource management must be flexible and adaptive at its core. It is quite important to recognize that pure subsistence is rare, and few, if any, smallholders operate completely detached from the market. As a result, the choices and tradeoffs made by national governments and international actors establish the incentives and constraints that farmers face and, ultimately, the crops and cropping systems they choose. Patterns of innovation, adoption, and adaptation reflect the social and economic fabric of rural communities and therefore differ markedly across time and space.


Shively, G., & Birur, D. (2009). Sustainable agriculture and natural resource management: A policy perspective. In KM. Moore (Ed.), The Sciences and Art of Adaptive Management: Innovating for Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management Ankeny, IA: Soil and Water Conservation Society.