Participatory Research, Development and Extension – Sustainable Agriculture

Developed in the 1980s-1990s, Niels Roling argues for sustainable agricultural development practice (RD&E) to involve farmers in the R&D process as collaborators and driving the RD&E agenda, rather than simply being the end-users (i.e. A shift from a directive approach to participatory extension). Otherwise, Roling believed, there will be little change from the traditional RD&E paradigm (e.g. Diffusion of Innovations theory).  

The participatory approach puts forward that having farmers come to a meeting or having a few farmer representatives on committees is insufficient – farmers must be positioned at the centre of the process (with extension practitioners) in the form of group extension rather than 1:1.

The theory puts forward that participatory processes and methods facilitated by extension practitioners in the process must be interactive and empowering.

The participatory approach was developed in the context that in understanding the social dimensions of the environmental crisis agriculture must attend to, as well as the important lessons we have learnt about the problems with traditional extension approaches. It suggests we need a new approach to address the systemic issues facing extension.

Rolings considers the social dimensions of the environmental-extension crisis:

  • The interdependence of human ‘actors’ across scales (local, regional, national, international)
  • The social embeddedness of environmental issues in social and cultural life – not just the domain of the science community
  • The complexity and uncertainty of contemporary agri-environmental issues
  • The skewed criteria of development towards economic optimisation at all costs
  • Individual engagement as a democratic project
  • Local action with global coordination and paradigm dilemmas – environmental challenges of today force us to grapple with our assumptions of our modern, industrialised culture.

(Roling and Wagemaker, 2003:48-50)
The theory refers to five distinct schools of thought for future options in sustainable agricultural development (RD&E):

  1. Optimists and complacents (free market solutions)
  2. Environmental pessimists (ecological limits will soon be reached and human population is one of the key problems)
  3. Industrialised world to the rescue (developed countries helping developing countries mechanise and develop large scale industrial farming to solve the food production crisis in developing countries – it is about using current agricultural lands rather than expanding agricultural land uses that may threaten the conservation of natural areas – Roling and Wagemakers, 1998:23-25)
  4. New modernists (high external input farming, Green Revolution, based on science-technology based extension), and the option Roling argues for
  5. Sustainable intensification (regenerative and low-input agriculture can be a highly productive – RD&E model premised on full participation of farmers in all stages of technology development and extension; agricultural production is also framed as not just a biological/physical process but also a function of human capacity and ingenuity; social-ecological systems thinking).

Sustainable intensification sees sustainable agricultural development centred around farmer participation in the RD&E process as collaborators with scientists and other RD&E stakeholders. This forms a learning community/system, since science is always incomplete and human judgements/decisions always need to be made in the context of uncertainty and incomplete knowledge.

A key component of the learning community/system is the idea of social transitions or developing new learning paths to support sustainable agriculture development.  Roling proposes that this element is often overlooked by extension practitioners.  Learning for sustainable agriculture involves a transformation in the fundamental objectives, strategies, theories, risk perceptions, skills, labour organisation and professionalism of farming. This learning path has four key elements:

  1. The information system: Sustainable agriculture must be responsive to changing circumstances, so farmers need to invest in observation, observation equipment, record keeping and monitoring procedures.
  2. Conceptual framework: Sustainable agriculture is knowledge intensive and so farmers must know about life cycles of pests and disease organisms and their recognition, biological controls, ecological principles, soil life processes, and nutrient cycles.  A key concept is social learning – an active process of critical thinking, interaction and communication with others providing a space and process to question assumption underlining our actions, values and claims about knowledge. At an epistemological level we can understand knowledge as constructed (constructivism), and while science (a particular form of knowledge production) is a key contributor, other knowledge gained through life experiences are also be part of the knowledge system. Drawing on Maturana and Varela’s theory of cognition, where knowing and acting are inseparable and knowledge is embedded in the physical environment, so that the actions flowing on from knowledge can be examined as supportive or destructive of the structural congruence between humans and ecosystems. It is a different perspective from the positivist approach to knowledge as a universal object.  Roling advocates for a constructivist position, but also sees value in positivist modes of inquiry (i.e. therefore supports methodological pluralism – Roling and Wagemaker, 2003:54-58)
  3. Skills: Sustainable farming requires a whole set of new skills, including observation and monitoring, compost making, mechanical weed control, spot application of pesticides, and risk assessment.
  4. Higher system-level management: Generally, sustainable management of the farm is not enough, and it is necessary to think at system levels higher than the farm and take part in the collective management of natural resources at those levels. (Roling and Pretty, 1998)

Sustainable agricultural development should adopt systems thinking – systems only exist in the human process of inquiry – ‘social-ecological systems’ are discrete systems that are coupled or interdependent (enabling people to discover or learn something for themselves perspective of reality – Roling and Pretty, 2003:69).

Roling stresses that farmers cannot act alone but need to act collectively with other farmers and RD&E stakeholders on agri-environmental issues. One of the roles of extension in this context is to make visible the interdependence between stakeholders and the extent to which the natural resources have been depleted by uncoordinated action and the aggregate impact of individual activities.  Rolings advocates for coordinated and collective resource management.

The policy context is considered a key influence on the success of sustainable agricultural development projects; policy acts as an enabler or disabler of the process. Roling refers to the interfaces between natural resources, local stakeholders, supportive institutions (industry organisations, NGOs, government agencies) and the policy context (Roling and Pretty, 2003).  He refers to evidence to demonstrate that sustainable agricultural development is regenerative to give both environmental and economic benefits to the social-ecological system.

There are three common elements that are at play in successful sustainable agricultural development programs-practices:

  1. Use of resource-conserving technologies such as integrated pest management, soil and water conservation practices, nutrient/water/waste recycling and multiple cropping techniques.
  2. That action has taken place at the local level where farmers are positioned as the experts in the system where resource management is governed at a catchment scale/natural resource boundaries scale
  3. The presence of a functioning supportive and enabling institutional environment maintained by government and non-government organisations where resources are targeted towards supporting local needs and capacity building (Roling and Pretty, 2003).

In the ecological knowledge system (EKS), change is created in the socio-sphere through policy processes, institutions and human behaviours (i.e. facilitated learning).  The ecological knowledge system concept is based on the two lessons drawn from the case studies and arguments of the book:

  1. Professionalism in ecologically sound agriculture makes much greater demands on understanding social processes than professionalism in conventional agriculture;
  2. Managing change in the direction of ecologically sound agriculture makes much greater demands on the understanding of learning than does the promotion of ‘more of the same’ within the conventional paradigm (Roling and Wagemaker, 2003:284)


The ecological knowledge system – Röling, N. and A. Wagemakers (Eds.) (1998). Facilitating Sustainable Agriculture. Participatory learning and adaptive management in times of environmental uncertainty. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

There are 5 main dimensions of the ecological knowledge system:

  1. Ecologically sound practices i.e. adaptive and responsive management of complex systems
  2. Learning (i.e. social learning)
  3. Facilitation (i.e. technical and enabling interactive processes)
  4. Support institutions and networks (i.e. multi-scalar and decentralised networks of organisation and resources that are exchanged), and
  5. Conducive policy contexts (i.e. policy directives that prevent the externalization of environmental costs from agricultural production)

The main purpose of the EKS is to help land users become experts at managing complex eco-systems in a sustainable manner.  Social learning is a key mechanism to bring about this expertise.  Social learning through groups, field schools and platforms generates new responses to social-ecological issues and moves away from instrumental rationality.

An ecological knowledge system is a distinct form of agricultural knowledge system (Roling, 1988 and Engel, 1995).  Agricultural extension then becomes a process and practice and can manage change towards developing ecological knowledge systems.

Application
Roling and Wagemakers (2003) provides international examples of sustainable agricultural development as a farmer-driven, participatory approach across the following themes:

  • Environmental policies and farmers’ reactions
  • Farmer learning, its facilitation and supportive institutions, and
  • Platforms for agricultural resource use negotiation.

Examples of this approach are farmer-first-and-last-approach and farmer field schools.

The farmer field school approach is a reversal of learning where agricultural researchers and extension agents are learning from the farmers. It is an integrated and organized field school which creates a space for farmers self-learning and sharing; the participants are not the object of training but can use their experiences as the subject for the training.

The farmer first-and-last approach targets developing countries and argues for a new approach to the Green Revolution paradigm of the 19650-60s. This period saw scientists controlling the research agenda, conducting experiments in controlled conditions, developing technologies and techniques that the science community deemed valuable and catering mostly for resource rich farming families.

The Green Revolution conceived the problem of poverty being a result of not enough production. However rural poverty issues identified in the 1970-80s recognised that increased food production alone will not address rural poverty.  Other social factors were recognised as being at play, such as a lack of resources/capital to grow food and/or income security to purchase food.

The approach recognises that there is a need for agricultural extension to focus on the resource-poor farming families for social justice reasons – to secure food production for these families and provide a more secure income.  It is about agricultural extension finding ways to service the needs and conditions of resource poor farming families, rather than just developing technologies in the ‘lab’ for release via extension professionals to innovators/early adopters (resource rich farmers) in the hope that these technologies will be eventually be adopted by resource poor farmers.

With the farmer-first-and-last approach, agricultural extension RD&E starts with the perceptions and priorities of the resource poor farming families and that a scientist through systematic means, will learn and understand the issues, resources and needs of the resource poor farming family.

Content source and further information

Roling, N. and A. Wagemakers (Eds.) (1998).  Facilitating Sustainable Agriculture.  Participatory learning and adaptive management in times of environmental uncertainty.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press

Roling, N. and Pretty, J. N. A. (1998).  Chapter 20 – Extension’s role in sustainable agricultural development in Swanson, B. E., Bentz, R. B., and Sofranko, A. J. wsa, (1998).  Agricultural Extension:  A Reference Manual. Second Edition. Rome: FAO

Chambers, R. (1985) Agricultural Research for resource-poor-farmers:  The farmer-first-and-last model.  Agricultural Administration 20:1-30

Roling, N (1996) Towards an interactive agricultural science. European Journal of Agricultural Education adn Extension, 2 (4):35-48

Roling, N. and Engel, P. (1991) The development of the concept of Agricultural Knowledge and Information Systems (AKIS): implications for extension. In Agricultural Extension: Worldwide Institutional Evolution and Forces for Change. ed. W. Rivera and D. Gustafson. pp.125-139. Amsterdam: Elsevier Science Publishers

To see Niels Röling present see the CTA Brussels YouTube video: Neils Röling, Emeritus Professor of University of Wageningen https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GCf8qOEZ5rA

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