Multicriteria assessment of alternative cropping systems at farm level. A case with maize on family farms of South East Asia
CONTEXT: Integration of farms into markets with adoption of maize as a cash crop can significantly increase income of farms of the developing world. However, in some cases, the income generated may still be very low and maize production may also have strong negative environmental and social impacts. OBJECTIVE: Maize production in northern Laos is taken as a case to study how far can farms’ performance be improved with improved crop management of maize with the following changes at field level: good timing and optimal soil preparation and sowing, allowing optimal crop establishment and low weed infestation. METHODS: We compared different farm types’ performance on locally relevant criteria and indicators embodying the three pillars of sustainability (environmental, economic and social). An integrated assessment approach was combined with direct measurement of indicators in farmers’ fields to assess eleven criteria of local farm sustainability. A bio-economic farm model was used for scenario assessment in which changes in crop management and the economic environment of farms were compared to present situation. The farm model was based on mathematical programming maximizing income under constraints related to i) household composition, initial cash and rice stocks and land type, and ii) seasonal balances of cash, labour and food. The crop management scenarios were built based on a diagnosis of the causes of variations in the agronomic and environmental performances of cropping systems, carried out in farmers’ fields. RESULTS AND CONCLUSIONS: Our study showed that moderate changes in crop management on maize would improve substantially farm performance on 4 to 6 criteria out of the 11 assessed, depending on farm types. The improved crop management of maize had a high economic attractiveness for every farm type simulated (low, medium and high resource endowed farms) even at simulated production costs more than doubling current costs of farmers’ practices. However, while an improvement of the systems performance was attained in terms of agricultural productivity, income generation, work and ease of work, herbicide leaching, improved soil quality and nitrogen balance, trade-offs were identified with other indicators such as erosion control and cash outflow needed at the beginning of the cropping season. SIGNIFICANCE: Using farm modelling for multicriteria assessment of current and improved maize cropping systems for contrasted farm types helped capture main opportunities and constraints on local farm sustainability, and assess the trade-offs that new options at field level may generate at farm level.