In the mountainous areas of South-East Asia, family farms have shifted from subsistence to input-intensified and market-oriented maize-based farming systems, resulting in a substantial increase in farm income, but also in new environmental threats: deforestation, biodiversity loss, soil erosion, herbicide leaching and soil fertility degradation. In this typical case study of cash-strapped farms, where the balance between socio-economic and environmental dimensions of sustainability is complex, we used participatory methods (serious games and Q-methodology), combined with agronomic field monitoring, to identify relevant farm and field-level criteria for sustainability assessment.
Serious games at farm level showed that short-term socio-economic dimensions prevailed over environmental dimensions in farmers' objectives. However, farmers also greatly valued their capacity to transfer a viable farm to the next generation and avoid herbicide use. Serious games at field level showed that some farmers were willing to preserve soil fertility for future generations. The agronomic field monitoring showed that maize yield deviations from potential water-limited yield were primarily due to weed infestation favoured by low sowing density, due to uncontrolled moto-mechanized crop establishment. This technical failure at the beginning of the maize cycle led to herbicide overuse, poor returns on investment for fertilizer, and increased exposure to soil erosion.
Combining the perspectives of scientists and farmers led to the following set of locally-relevant criteria: i) at farm level: farm income, diversity of activities, farmer autonomy, farmer health, workload peaks, soil fertility transfer between agroecological zones in the landscape, rice and forage self-sufficiency; ii) at field level: resource use efficiency, soil fertility, erosion and herbicide risks, susceptibility to pests, weeds and climate variability, biodiversity, land productivity, economic performance, labour productivity and work drudgery. Our approach helped to identify key relevant sustainability criteria and could be useful for designing alternatives to current maize-based cropping systems, and contributed to informing priority-setting for institutional development and agricultural policies in the region.