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 debateWhile 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 innovatorsFarmers 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 affordableWhile 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.
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