IIED logo


Environmental Mainstreaming
Integrating environment into development institutions and decisions

Main Menu
Environment Inside
Goals and Challenges
Environmental Mainstreaming in Development Initiative
Issue Paper

Country Learning Groups and Surveys

Conferences, Workshops and Events
Key Literature
User Guide Project (2008-2008)
Contact Us
Poverty Environment Partnership
Archive content from the NSSD website

IIED launches study on the use of knowledge and information in decision-making for sustainable agriculture

With funding support from UK DFID, IIED is undertaking work examining how evidence, knowledge and information are used in decision-making for sustainable agriculture, particularly concerning agricultural intensification. The focus is on the kinds of knowledge used in planning (eg concerning land resources) and to inform/support key decisions on agricultural initiatives – what knowledge is available, how it is accessed, if, when and how it is used, at what stages in decision-making and for what purposes, etc.

Decision-makers are under pressure to respond to the challenges of food and water security and climate change. They need to be convinced that economic development is underpinned by natural resources and ecosystem services like the provision of fresh water, recycling of wastes, and moderation of climate – and, more than this, they need the capacity to act on the issue. Knowledge and information are key - timely, reliable information on the location, potential, and management requirements of natural resources like soils, water and biodiversity, and knowledge about the complex interactions and trade-offs (e.g. between maximising productivity and reducing negative environmental impacts). Otherwise, decisions will increasingly be taken in a knowledge vacuum. Uninformed and poor decisions lead to further land degradation and more and more so-called natural disasters; for instance, the 2010 floods in Pakistan were catastrophic because deforestation and soil erosion in the catchment of the River Indus have severely reduced its capacity to retain rainfall, and because of reckless development of the flood plain without provision of holding basins.

Recent years have seen a revolution in information technology and developments in natural resources surveys such as airborne geophysics and satellite-borne remote sensing that provide unprecedented detail and coverage - but which require expert interpretation. At the same time, there has been a world-wide loss of natural resources expertise. For example, the FAO Global Forest Resource Assessment 2010 reports that the number of staff world-wide (many of them forest experts) has declined by 1.2 per cent annually since 2000. Many national organisations and world-famous companies that carried out surveys, maintained datasets and supplied technical advice to governments have been reduced to ineffectiveness or closed down thanks to withdrawal of funding. With the loss of professional posts, the demand for training in assessment and management of natural resources has all but disappeared - few if any universities now provide it. The world’s natural resources expertise has been pensioned off. At the same time, pressures on natural resources continue to increase, and decision makers have to make far-reaching decisions that require a good knowledge of the complex trade-offs between different developmental interventions (and their likely impact on people and the environment).

Now that there is a premium on knowledge of the land, powerful businesses are developing their own information but this is not available to governments and civil society. There is a pressing need to:

  1. Take stock of the fundamentals of food and water security, ecosystem resilience and several intersecting, worrying trends in rural development, land use and management;

  2. Identify the key requirements for knowledge and information to address these trends. What kinds of knowledge and information do policy-makers, planners, investors and managers need if they are to ensure food security and adapt to climate change? What knowledge do they actually use and how “good” (relevant, accurate, timely) is this knowledge?

  3. Develop new policy and capacity-development guidelines to rebuild the cadre of specialists and knowledge infrastructure to ensure effective delivery of key natural-resources information to meet today’s and tomorrow’s needs.

However, having access to relevant knowledge and information is not enough for evidence-based decision making. Decision makers have to balance a wide range of interests and are subject to many influences, of which scientific knowledge is only a (relatively small) part. More importantly, knowledge is not value-neutral – a lot of knowledge is contested and different groups attach different weight to it. An NGO activist would for example be more likely to listen to a farmer’s’ concerns about environmental impacts of agribusiness expansion than a private investor in such businesses. Some knowledge providers are more credible and respected than others, perhaps because they are used by senior government members. Our understanding of the importance of power and the political context in which decisions are taken is crucial in order to understand what information and knowledge is demanded and used by whom.

We therefore propose to use a framework of analysis that considers four interrelated components:

Analysis Framework

In the contest of sustainable agricultural development, we would like to understand how these four components work together to create (or hinder!) evidence-based decision making. For each of the four components, in a Diagnostic Framework (see below), we propose a number of questions (adapted to the specific context of the case study), along the following lines:

  1. Political context: Who has the strongest voices in policy debates? What checks and balances are in place to ensure that weaker voices can be heard? For example, are there systems to ensure that the concerns of local communities / farmers are taken on board and those of ordinary citizens?

  2. Actors: How do the interests of the various actors coincide or conflict with each other? Are there strongly held values and belief systems which affect this? Who is seen as credible in policy debates? Who is influenced by whom?

  3. Types of knowledge: Which types of knowledge are used in policy debates and in decision making? Where does this knowledge come from? What type or source of knowledge is dominant?

  4. Intermediaries: These are the people or organisations that translate knowledge into formats that are accessible to different types of users (for example, NGOs simplifying maps in order to use them for participatory planning with rural communities). Are there any intermediaries – organisations or individuals –which specifically work across the interface between knowledge and policy? How do they work and what effect do they have?



We interpret the following terms as described below:

Sustainable agricultural intensification means “producing more output from the same area of land while reducing the negative environmental impacts and at the same time increasing contributions to natural capital and the flow of environmental services” (Royal Society 20091, Godfray et al., 20120 2).

It is more than just increasing yields, producing two or more crops a year on the same land, or changing from low-value crops or commodities to those that command higher prices; it also recognizes that agriculture can harm the environment through depleting or polluting the land and water resources on which it depends.

Natural resources information includes:

  • Generic level: landscapes and ecosystems

  • Specific resources: soils, forests, water (rain, surface and ground water), wildlife/biodiversity, geological resources (including minerals)

  • Interpretations/evaluations concerning NR: e.g. their importance (e.g. for conservation), suitability for specified uses (e.g. for crops, grazing), potential to support agricultural intensification and economic development, management requirements.

Decisions refers to those made by government, investors, communities, individual land users and land managers, and others, and concerned with developing, agreeing or implementing a particular policy, plan, project or initiative concerned with agricultural intensification.

In response to these challenges, IIED is developing a diagnostic that may be used to ascertain what knowledge/information ie used in decision-making, particularly for sustainable agricultural intensification in developing countries. It aims to provide a framework for research, interviews or round-table discussions in order to identify where gaps in knowledge are, how knowledge users can better articulate what knowledge / information they need, and how knowledge intermediaries can be strengthened.

IIED is using a framework developed by ODI as a prototype for this diagnostic which it will test in two case study countries. In each country, an appropriate, recent agricultural initiative will be selected against which to apply the diagnostic.


Case studies

IIED plans to undertake tow case studies to test the diagnostic. The first will be initiated in Nepal in March 2013 where IIED will work with the Asian Centre for Environment and Sustainable Development (AEMS). In Nepal, District Agriculture Offices are coordinating with District Development Office to prepare district agriculture plans. The area around Kathmandu (Kavre and Dhading districts) is witnessing a boom in vegetable farming, particularly during the off-season (after harvesting the main rice crop).  This case study will review and compare the use of knowledge and information at national to local levels: in national agricultural policy making and in developing and implementing the agriculture plans in these two districts, as well as at farmer level where appropriate.




1 The Royal Society (2009), Reaping the Benefits. Science and the Sustainable
Intensification of Global Agriculture. RS Policy Document 11/09” , Royal Society,
London, 2009

2 Godfray H.C.J. et.al. (2010) Food Security: The Challenges of Feeding 9 Billion People. Science, 327, 812

Copyright 2007 IIED