Resource use and sustainability

Poverty compels people to extract from the ever-shrinking remaining natural resources base, destroying it in the process. In fact, the major characteristic of the environmental problem in developing countries is that land degradation in its many forms presents a clear and immediate threat to the productivity of agricultural and forest resources and therefore to the economic growth of countries that largely depend on them.
Schramm and Warford1

The links between agriculture and the natural environment are complex. Agriculture is a major user of land and water resources. Globally, about 70% of water withdrawal is diverted to irrigating crops. While proper agricultural practices help maintain natural habitats and a wide range of wild species, agriculture can have significant adverse environmental impacts. For example, in many parts of the developing world, inappropriate agriculture practices and land use has led to:

  • water scarcity
  • pollution of water and soil
  • loss of forests and pastures
  • loss of biodiversity.   

Threats to natural resources

Natural resources – land, water, vegetation, and biodiversity – provide for the primary livelihood of people in rural areas of developing countries. It is thus crucial to utilize and manage these resources in an efficient and sustainable way for sustained agricultural and economic development.

In Asia, water is becoming increasingly scarce due in part to wasteful irrigation and unsustainable pumping of groundwater.

Contamination of water and soil is equally prominent in especially China and India, owing partially to excessive and inappropriate use of agrichemicals.

Nutrient depletion
In Africa, soil nutrient mining is a major problem causing land degradation. It is largely caused by low access to and utilization of fertilizers and consequently low productivity prevails. 

Solutions to natural resource degradation

Technical solutions
These provide the physical means of remedying environmental problems and include:

  • Physical structures to reduce soil erosion (e.g. contour plowing, mulching, windbreaks).
  • Better lined irrigation canals to reduce water logging and salinity.
  • Integrated pest management techniques to reduce pesticide pollution.

Economic and institutional solutions
These provide incentives for behavioral change:

  • Taxes, subsidies and regulations can influence local incentives for conservation.
  • Payment for environmental services is a market-based approach to conservation, which has attracted strong interest in recent years.
  • Secure property rights, e.g. clear ownership of land titles incentivises long-term investment on land such as soil conservation measures.  

Achieving sustainable development

To feed the world's growing population, 9 billion in 2050, we need to boost food productivity and supply significantly and in sustainable ways. Improving resource use efficiency and better management of natural resources are essential in the process. More specifically, the following areas3 are important to achieve more sustainable development in agriculture:

  1. Improving water management:
  • Integrated water management.
  • Improved water use efficiency in irrigation.
  • Better pricing and cost recovery of irrigation water.
  • Water markets (tradable water rights).
  1. Better management of fertilizers and pesticides:
  • Balanced use of nitrogen-phosphorous-potassium fertilizers and better timing.
  • Integrated pest management.
  • Using pest-resistant varieties.
  • Precision farming and low tillage farming.
  1. Better management of intensive livestock systems:
  • Nutrient management.
  • Limiting livestock density per farm, etc.
  1. Protection of environmentally vulnerable areas and adaptation to climate change.
  2. Payment for environmental services:
  • Emerging markets for carbon credits (carbon sequestration payments).
  • Payment for agrobiodiversity conservation services.

Read related topics:

"Payment for environmental services".
"Payment for agrobiodiversity conservation services (PACS)".

Find out more about crop biodiversity.
1Schramm G. and Warford J. J. (eds), 1989. Environmental Management and Economic Development. John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD.
2Norton G. W., Alwang J., Masters W. A., 2006. The economics of agricultural development: World food systems and resource use. Routledge, Great Britain.
3The World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Development, 2008. The World Bank, Washington, DC.