Member of Dilokata farmers group in her garden in Bito village, Uganda. Photo: Oxfam
Member of Dilokata farmers group in her garden in Bito village, Uganda.

Day 8: The Future is Already Here

18 December, 2012 | Future of Agriculture: Online Discussion

The future has arrived, it’s just not at the scale required. The spread of bottom-up approaches to farmer innovation, coupled with breakthrough technology developed by input companies, will make smallholders productive and profitable. Crucially, new technologies must be accessible, appropriate and affordable.

By Kavita Prakash-Mani, Head of Food Security Agenda, Syngenta International

How can we develop smallholder farming in a way that is appropriate, equitable and helps to feed the 8 billion people who will inhabit the world in 25 years – including the 870 million who are hungry today – and still live within Earth’s planetary boundaries? New models are already being developed and tested, some led by donors and NGOs, others by multinational food companies or small entrepreneurs, and still others by multiple players working together. 

Successful examples of public-private partnerships can be seen in Brazil, Vietnam and increasingly in Africa. For example, the Grow Africa partnership platform that began in 2011, brings together governments from a number of countries including Ethiopia, Tanzania, Ghana, as well as donor agencies, local and multinational companies, and civil society organisations to invest in agricultural transformation by placing smallholders at the heart of development.

However initiatives like this are not enough. Much more needs to be done – and even more important, to be done at scale. 

The technology debate
While farmers are stewards of their land and experts in their local cultivation practices, there is a role for other players and for technology to make the job of farming less hard, more productive, and more sustainable. Currently, there is disagreement on the impact of technologies and what intervention or techniques are appropriate. Will technology make the farmer profitable or will she get caught in a debt spiral? Will it create a dependency for the farmer or enhance farmer choice? Will it have a detrimental impact on the environment or conserve resources and ecosystems? 

“Will technology make the farmer profitable or will she get caught in a debt spiral?”

Going forward, we foresee the need for ‘hybrid’ solutions tailored to different geographies, climates and crops. We see the debate moving on from the simple choice between organic versus technology-driven solutions to one where seemingly opposing approaches come together to create the most effective solution. 

For example, conservation practices which protect soil and water will be enabled by the use of crop protection solutions, and may also result in a decreased use of fertilizers. Pressure from pests will be reduced by crop rotation and integrated pest management approaches, including the use of beneficial insects and biological controls. Certified clean seeds, bred for local conditions and able to withstand changing weather patterns, will result in much higher yields and use less environmental resources. 

Farmers as innovators
Farmers know their land better than anyone else.  They have learned over generations what works on their farms – which crops do well, what to plant and when, how to manage their soil and water. They can often be risk averse and slow to adopt new ideas, but they can also be innovative and come up with new, locally relevant, economically feasible solutions. 

There is no doubt that farmers’ innovations will need further support. Even now, according to the FAO , $83 billion needs to be invested in agricultural research and downstream services, to support the development and scaling up of local knowledge and best practice. 

We see a future where there will be greater emphasis on learning from farmers and more investment to enable farmers to develop their own approaches to such challenges as soil fertility, seed productivity, fighting pests and diseases, and climate change. 

Greater government investment in local agricultural schools will make for better trained local scientists, agronomists and extension workers. Local universities will work with farmers to understand, catalogue and review the farmers’ own practices and use of inputs – and, in turn, invest in further developing and disseminating local best practice. 

“Greater government investment in local agricultural schools will make for better trained local scientists, agronomists and extension workers.”

Development of local capacity should also help address the lack of investment in orphan or neglected crops. These are locally relevant crops such as sorghum, tef and cassava, which form the dietary staple for many resource-poor farmers and their families, but have seen no investment in research and development to improve their productivity. 

A bottom-up approach to innovation would be supported by multinational companies and research organizations through investment, training and student exchange. Donors would provide grants to local scientists and agronomists. Partnerships would be developed like the Water Efficient Maize for Africa initiative, where the private sector, development agencies, public research organizations and local research institutes work together to develop drought-tolerant maize varieties suitable for the African region. 

“Geographic distance will not be a constraint in the future.” 

In the decades to come, there will be much more open-source innovation and knowledge sharing. All types of organizations, whether multinational companies, research institutes or local NGOs, will recognize local knowledge and disseminate it more widely – farmer to farmer, region to region. Innovative solutions shared through cloud sourcing and social media will enable farmers globally to freely access and share their own experience and learning. We know farmers learn best from other farmers. Geographic distance will not be a constraint in the future. 

Such grassroots innovation should result in lower cost, locally applicable and globally adaptable solutions that also provide an economic benefit to the farmer innovator. 

Technology that is appropriate, accessible and affordable
While bottom-up farmer-led innovation will make a substantial difference to smallholder productivity and profitability, farmers cannot develop all the solutions required. They will also need investment in breakthrough technology in the form of better seeds, fertilizers, crop protection, mechanization, irrigation and even better agronomy practices. Given the scale of investment required to develop such technologies, agriculture input companies will continue to play a critical role. 

The challenge of how to make these inputs accessible, available and affordable for smallholder farmers will be addressed. For one, more farms will be profitable in the future and more farmers should have the income to access these solutions. But it is likely that there will be a subset of farmers who can’t afford them or can only afford them through loans at very high interest rates. In a profession that is plagued by disasters − environmental forces such as droughts or floods, or through pests and disease − the risk to the farmer is very high. 

With more public investment in agricultural R&D, the cost of development could be subsidized. Newer techniques, such as marker-assisted breeding and precision agriculture, greater collaboration between public and private entities, open-source idea generation, virtual teams and collaboration, should all enable faster and cheaper technology development. Working more closely with the farmers themselves will enable companies to target more clearly identified needs and develop more appropriate responses.  

“Working more closely with the farmers themselves will enable companies to target more clearly identified needs and develop more appropriate responses.”

More investment in infrastructure, clarity of regulation and opening of markets will in turn facilitate easier distribution of these technologies to those who need it most, even in remote areas – and not at exorbitant costs. 

In addition, providing credit at fair terms, pricing products so they are affordable, enabling farmers to secure a purchase with affordable insurance to reduce their financial risk, setting up contracts for farmers to sell their products, are all methods being tested in the market now to enable farmers to access inputs and technology without high risk. Such financial solutions will be the norm in the future.

In many ways, the future is already here. It’s just not at the scale required to make a significant impact. While we need to invest in bottom-up innovative solutions as well as global technologies, we have to ensure that these are accessible, appropriate and affordable to the farmers who need them most. That’s both the challenge and the opportunity facing us. Only then can we secure economic growth for 500 million smallholder farmers and achieve food security globally. 

Download: The Future is Already Here


Farmers, technology and the rules of the relationship

Yesterday's discussions grappled with some of the realities of achieving greater freedoms for farmers - how could such freedoms actually be attained, and how would farmers and other actors reorient themselves if, and when, such changes came about. Today we will discuss about the value of technology and farmers knowledge and innovation.

The use of farmer knowledge and innovation can refer to applied solutions that look both to the past and to the future. Despite the model of partnership held up by Wambugu, do scientists and small farmers always make for good partners? Who will define the rules of the relationship? Prakash-Mani acknowledges the cost of new technology and the risk inherent in innovation as significant barriers. Will her recommendations for private sector and government investments be achievable or realistic in the current and future economic climate? What do you think?

we'll only cure symptoms, if we don't address the causes

I think Prakash-Mani is thoughtful in some way and has good intentions, but I believe, as long as we don't address, on a global scale, the causes, that have brought about the world problems like hunger, poverty, war, climate change, we will once again be trying just to cure symptoms. The causes are the logic of the market forces, the spirit of competition and greed, exclusiveness. These are thought patterns that had and still have an enormous impact on our planet. And we shouldn't be so naive to believe that profit-driven multinationals which are constantly on halluzinating drugs, the drip feed of stock markets, are prone to change this.

It's a fact that small farmers historically, all over the world, developed, cultivated and knew tens of thousands of types of staple foods such as wheat, corn, rice etc. tailored to geographies and climates, and that was long before the term multinationals existed. Who were the forces behind the end to this global diversity and the beginning of genetically modified seeds? Was it the farmers? Definitely not.

What hypocrisy is this that the very companies who, in a so called public-private partnership (national governments with mutinationals), be it in Africa, India or elsewhere, did everything to enslave farmers, making them hooked on seeds that produce crops with seeds that would not thrive in the next season, that these multinationals (and Syngenta is one of these) now want to sell a "cheap and affordable" cure to the disease they caused? "We provided the guns with which we advised you to shoot at yourself and now provide the cure as well. Are we not good?" Not to mention land grabbing, and rich countries that for decades have been driving poor countries into the debt trap, and then force them to sell subsidized food from foreign countries cheaper than local agricultural produce which constitutes the next poverty trap for small farmers. And now climate change. This is producing Karma, and I assume Mrs Prakash-Mani knows the implications.

Jiddu Krishnamurti, a thinker, said: "Problems can never be solved on their own level." We need to change the causes, not cure the symptoms of the effects.

But if we don't start addressing the symptoms...

I think Till makes some interesting points, though I'm not sure it's fair to tarnish all 'profit-driven multinationals' with the same abrasive brush. I wonder, though, if we don't start by making practical, albeit fairly modest, changes to business-as-usual including some along the lines Kavita suggests, how will we ever chip away at the huge intractable issues Till mentions? And if one takes the view that large multinationals are not prone to change the status quo, then I wonder what is served by berating them for not doing so? Either we all constructively engage in finding shared solutions, or else the rest of us look to develop our own solutions. But if we are so confident that big business is intrinsically unreformable, then shouldn't we just let them get on with their thing and the rest of us get on with ours? 

RE: The Future is Already Here

 Here, Kavita Prakash-Mani has  brought very important and practical thoughts on technology innovations and suggested local solutions.

Further to develop local capacity, beyond the traditional agriculture school system,  we  should embed  basic agriculture production curriculum in all school education system so that everybody will have at least a basic understanding on agriculture production system- now food security issues should not be only on the farmers’ shoulder,  and it should be appreciated by all disciplines. For example without basic knowledge of agriculture production system, an IT software Engineer cannot develop appropriate learning tools for farmers and so on.....

Technology and its adoptability: there are many technology innovations exist on agriculture system like ‘hybrid’ seed, harvesting and post-harvest technologies and various open knowledge platform through the current ICT innovation etcs. , however the localisation and adoptability component  is greatly missing at local implementation level , therefore it’s  a high time to enhance  farmers' capacity to access and proper use of technology  innovations or in order to promote farmer-led technical improvements,  farmers  should  be  allowed to use their  indigenous knowledge ( what is working well at the moment) to develop and adopt all these innovations  

Michal Whirlow

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The Real Truth

Hunger, poverty and climate deterioration are incredibly large and complex crises (no, not "problems" or "challenges") and should be treated as crises, as absolute emergencies, as humanitarian disasters.

The solutions will only come through wholistic and altruistic thinking and actions.  Why altruistic (i.e. selfless and for the greater good)?  Greed, power-lust and shareholder value has only caused the few to inflict suffering on the many. Multinationals are all about maximizing proft for themselves and they do a great job of PR on the social issues, but let's see them put their money where their mouth is. Let's see some true leaders and visionaries rise up in the corporate world who care more about the world than their bank accounts and the sycophants who stroke their childish egos.

The business leaders and politicians of today, with a few nice exceptions, are operating on very low-level thinking such as "my money, my power and my status", even though they are masterful at talking the talk.

Until that changes and until they realize they cannot escape the climate crisis no matter how rich they are and they cannot escape the coming revolutions no matter how powerful they are, status quo will rule, with perhaps some small improvements here and there.  

Solution: People, vote with your wallets. Buy shares of only the most socially responsible corporations. 





Thank you for your comments

Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It is helpful to hear different points of view and to engage in a meaningful dialogue.

To be able to develop and deliver food security we definitely need systemic changes targeted at addressing underlying causes. We also need a new era of collaboration that brings different partners together - unusual suspects - who can together make the changes we require. There are many companies today, including Syngenta, that are developing win-win solutions that enable sustainable development while delivering commercial value. More can be done but it will require stakeholders working together. As Richard mentions above, we need constructive engagement to do just that.

The farmer needs to be put at the centre of any solution. I agree with Ekanath that agriculture and food issues need to be included in education curriculum to enable the development of innovative solutions and also to make farming an attractive profession. More importantly, we need to invest in farmer capacity building and the localisation of solutions through direct farmer engagement.

There is a lot that can be done and should be done. And it needs to be done at scale with all stakeholders playing their part.

Food Security : Question of HUMAN GERMPLASM

Dear Madam, Agreeing to all the talks related to food security ..yield , quality , easy access , tech platforms  etc etc ...However the biggest stumbling block is the quality of leadership, the readiness of the companies to " walk what they talk"..  COMPANY HAS NOT ONLY DEPRIVED BILLIONS ON EARTH , OF FOOD AND GOOD QUALITY , BUT ALSO LOST 5 BN $  FOR SYNGENTA AG ...One can quantify the stakeholder value loss by  CORRUPT INDIAN MANAGEMENT ... eg .. If SYNGENTA has a product called INVINSA ( the abiotic stress tolerant product) which can help eradicate the frequent problems of drought , water logging in as many as 70-80 Mn Has of Indian arable land, then what stops the company to introduce the product ...Company has NEMATODE CONTROL products , Company has AGRISURE , Company has THIABENDAZOLE , the Post harvest pest control,.... WHY IS SYNGENTA SILENT ABOUT THIS???? in the EMERGING MARKETS like INDIA offering great opportunities ,.the STAKEHOLDERS  VALUE IS ERODED BY  THE  SO CALLED BUSINESS LEADERS of the company .. ...WHO ARE CORRUPT N INSINCERE....Company has to select the RIGHT LEADER , the AMBITIOUS LEADER not just the DO AS DIRECTED people, who can think beyond just SALES ,  What stop the company making the best performing HERBICIDE , FUNGICIDE, INSECTICIDES introduce at affordable rates ( almost Billions of stakeholders money is fueled in arranging the WORKSHOPs for TRIVIAL LEADERS , whose only job is to visit the field alongwith SYCOPHANTS... there is NO REAL WORK... Company is also mired so much in the POLITICS and CORRUPTION , the WRONG PEOPLE ARE PROMOTED , whose only goal is to DEPRIVE the organisation for the talent and opportunities .( to save thier jobs) .. and hence such company MUST NOT TALK even the food safety .. it has to INTROSPECT ,... whether they GOT THE REAL HUMAN GERMPLASM to ERADICATE THE IMPENDING PROBLEM... The talk of food security by these organisation is very much fluffy....

Dario Hoot

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