In November 1991, the FAO Conference launched the International Cooperative Framework for Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development. The SARD framework, as it has come to be known, supports the integration of sustainability criteria in the programs and activities of the organization. Guidelines for achieving SARD were set down in the Den Bosch Declaration at a major international conference organized by FAO and the Netherlands in 1991. Preparations for the Den Bosch Conference also contributed to FAO's input to the UN Conference on Environment and Development in 1992.
FAO helps member countries plan and implement environmentally positive projects through sustainability assessment and review of policies and plans in the agriculture and related natural resources sectors. Assessment and preparation of investment projects by FAO's Investment Center focus on sustainability criteria. At the same time, FAO is the "task master" for the "land cluster" of Agenda 21: water resources, forests, fragile mountain ecosystems, and sustainable agriculture and rural development. The organization also chairs two UN sub-committees to coordinate the implementation of Agenda 21 chapters on oceans and water resources.
To meet growing needs for food, FAO advocates equitable, participatory rural development as the key to eradication of poverty, the first and foremost cause of undernutrition. At the same time, FAO's approach includes fine-tuning programs and projects to the continuing challenges of balancing increased production with environmental and sustainability concerns.
The FAO set up the Virtual Extension Research Communication Network (VERCON), which uses information and communication technologies to improve linkages among collaborating research and extension institutions.
Among the most basic of resources for agriculture, water and soil are quickly reaching their limits. As burgeoning populations demand more food, the realization of the finiteness of resources, and of the need to manage them carefully, becomes increasingly acute. The effects of soil and water degradation are especially severe in the developing countries, and in particular among the rural poor who have the most limited access to these vital resources. FAO has initiated many research projects to help farmers in developing nations make the most of the resources available to them.
FAO helps national and nongovernmental institutions and organizations study the effects of erosion on soil productivity, develop methods for soil reclamation, improve management of arid and semi-arid soils, disseminate appropriate tillage techniques, and monitor soil micro-organisms and bacteria as well as waterlogging and salinity. The organization also helps rural communities combat deforestation and concomitant soil degradation, developing knowledge and self-reliance that makes them more efficient managers of the resources under their custody.
On the information side, in addition to providing data on soil use for scientists, FAO's digitized version of the Soil Map of the World (see Information for Agriculture) has been modified to make it accessible to nonspecialists. FAO contributes to technical seminars and general policy conferences on various aspects of soil and water management. For instance, the organization played a key role in the International Conference on Water and the Environment held in Dublin in 1992. The Dublin Statement emphasized water's economic value, and warned that this resource cannot be taken for granted.
The FAO maintains two computer programs designed as tools for increasing the efficiency of water use in agriculture. AQUASTAT is a global database on water use in agriculture and rural development. Though irrigation is the major issue, AQUASTAT provides information on such diverse aspects as drainage, environmental impact of water resources development, and water balance to users worldwide. The other computer-based system, SIMIS (Scheme for Irrigation Management Information System), was developed to help reduce losses in irrigation systems. Many complex and shifting factors must be considered in irrigation schemes. Designed to be adaptable to diverse local situations in the developing world, the SIMIS system covers a range of irrigation management topics, from human resources administration, to information on climate, crops, soils, and machinery, to accounting codes. SIMIS can process information on one or several projects, making rapid and precise calculations to assess needs and possibilities while streamlining routine activities such as billing and registration.
Through the International Action Plan on Water and Sustainable Agricultural Development, FAO has launched programs in numerous member nations to help them manage water resources efficiently and meet the water needs of rural people.
A joint FAO/IAEA/SIDA research program uses neutron moisture meters to measure how water is used by crops and crop varieties. The study has shown that some varieties of cereals, for example, are up to three times more efficient in water use than others. The possibility of choosing water-efficient varieties provides farmers in water-scarce areas with welcome relief.
After land and water, fertilizers are the most important input for increasing agricultural yield. Increased efficiency in fertilizer use can cut farmers' costs while helping to protect the environment, increase yields, and heighten consumer satisfaction. One of the Agenda 21 missions spearheaded by FAO is the achievement of increased food production through improvements in plant nutrition systems. In 1993, the organization renamed its Fertilizer Programme to reflect essential changes in approach. The Plant Nutrition Programme focuses on the application of Integrated Plant Nutrition Systems (IPNS).
Under the program, FAO promotes IPNS activities at the farm level for sustainable nutrient management based on a comprehensive vision of the cropping cycle. The objective is to help farmers establish the best association of biological (manure, crop residues), mineral, and naturally occurring (soil) nutrients to achieve a balanced supply while controlling losses and enhancing labor productivity.
Breeding research for improved plant nutrition concentrates on selecting and incorporating traits that will enhance a variety's nutrient uptake and utilization. In addition, the Plant Nutrition Programme helps governments develop sound policies and strategies at the national level, encouraging them to adapt or create institutions and organizations for the regulation of nutrient production, supply, and use.
FAO has numerous programs and projects aimed at reducing and rationalizing use of potentially harmful pesticides. The International Code of Conduct on the Distribution and Use of Pesticides (see Advice to Governments) identifies potential hazards and sets standards for those engaged in the regulation, distribution, and use of pesticides—governments, industry, traders, and users—to increase safety, efficacy, and economy.
FAO focuses its field work in plant protection on the application of the IPM strategy (see Crop Production and Protection) at the farm level, encouraging governments to support farmers who seek to improve production using these integrated methods. In Asia, over half a million rice growers have been able to minimize pesticide use and raise profits using techniques learned in IPM field schools. FAO has organized study tours to help plant protection specialists from countries in Africa, Latin America, and the Near East learn from the Asian experience. During the last two decades of the 20th century, pesticide use, combined with crop intensification practices and the use of fertilizers, substantially increased rice yield by farmers in developing countries.