Is improving agriculture through innovation key to economic growth and development?
Innovation is essential to agricultural development. With the global population set to exceed nine billion by mid century, and the challenges of climate change, environmental degradation, long-term water shortages and burgeoning urban populations, we need groundbreaking solutions and new ways of working in agriculture.
Inclusive, sustainable agricultural development – not just higher productivity, but decent employment for all rural people – is a key driver of economic growth, improved food and nutrition security, and poverty reduction. This is particularly true in low-income countries, where agricultural growth is at least three times – and in some cases 11 times – more effective in reducing extreme poverty than growth in other sectors.
If anything, demographic shifts have made rural areas more important. Although about half the global population now lives in urban areas, 75 per cent of poor people still live outside the cities and depend on agriculture for their food and income. In addition, urban areas depend on rural people and rural spaces for food, water and environmental services. Development cannot succeed if it leaves rural people out.
There are about 500 million smallholder farms in the world. They make a vital, though often unrecognised, contribution to global food security. In some regions, small farmers account for up to 80 per cent of production. Most have little access to services, inputs or innovations, yet studies show that small-scale farms are more productive per hectare than large-scale farms. Enabling these farming families to further increase their harvests and connect to value chains and markets has a direct positive effect on their livelihoods and on economic growth, for rural areas and for countries. Innovation and new technologies play a big role here.
But we must not get carried away by a desire to always be at the cutting edge of modern technology. Certainly, new breakthroughs have their place in agricultural development. Biotechnologies such as marker-assisted selection, marker-assisted breeding, tissue culture and embryo-rescue techniques offer many benefits. They can boost productivity, make nutrient use more efficient, and improve the tolerance of seeds and plants to drought, temperature stress and pests.
But technology is a tool, not an end in itself. As a scientist, I understand the excitement of new discoveries. But as a development practitioner, I have seen the miracles that take place when farmers have the tools to enhance existing – and sometimes quite traditional – technologies. Natural resource management, conservation agriculture or simple agronomic practices are all part of innovation for sustainable intensified production systems.
G20 members are hugely significant in agricultural development. They produce almost 80 per cent of the world’s cereals. Yet half of the malnourished people in the world live in G20 members. This means that their progress in agricultural development could have a major impact not only on their own populations, but also on those in other countries.
How is the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) working to this end?
Innovation alone is not sufficient to drive that development. Farming families in developing countries also need the basics, including all-weather roads, inputs such as fertiliser and good seed, functioning markets, access to extension services, and access to credit, to name a few.
In addition to cutting-edge advances in agricultural science, often conventional approaches – such as using fertilisers and micro-irrigation, or using trees to improve soil fertility and moisture content – can yield dramatic results. In fact, low-cost, existing technologies have huge potential to increase yields.
This is particularly true in Africa, where only about six per cent of all cultivated land is irrigated. This compares with 37 per cent in Asia. Irrigation alone could increase output by up to 50 per cent in Africa. Similarly, farmers in sub-Saharan Africa use under 13kg of fertiliser per hectare. In contrast, farmers in the Middle East and North Africa use about 73kg, while farmers in East Asia and the Pacific use 190kg.
Small increases in fertiliser use in sub-Saharan Africa can have dramatic effects on yields. A fertiliser micro-dosing technique developed by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and its partners has produced good results, using a bottle-cap system so farmers can measure out small, affordable amounts of fertiliser. In addition, greater use of high-yielding seed varieties could have great benefits.
What does all of this reveal? It tells us that what we might call ‘subsistence agriculture’ is basically an underperforming agricultural system.
Innovation is not just about what tools we use, but how we work with people. IFAD’s experience has shown that groundbreaking ways of working with rural people can make vital contributions to inclusive agricultural development. In many cases, innovative approaches to empowerment, organisation and partnership are vital to helping poor producers take advantage of the opportunities that open up when the basic necessities are in place.
IFAD is working with partners in several African countries to pioneer effective ways of engaging with extremely poor families who are often excluded from project activities. Using an approach known as ‘household mentoring’, trained volunteers work within the family to help all members draw up a shared vision.
Household mentoring shifts the focus from things, such as assets, resources and infrastructure, to people: who they want to be and what they want to do. The approach takes account of the reality that households are often not cohesive, egalitarian units that share resources and benefits. On the contrary, the women and men in a single family may pursue largely separate livelihoods, engage in different activities and enjoy different statuses. Household mentoring has improved gender relations and has had a measurable effect on social problems such as domestic violence and alcohol abuse.
IFAD is leading the drive to scale up household mentoring as a methodology. The approach is being spotlighted during the International Year of Family Farming 2014. It is being widely applied in Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Uganda, with about 50,000 people participating. Reported benefits include greater resilience in the face of external shocks, more girls and boys in school, increased productivity and greater happiness. Household mentoring is included in the design of new projects in Ghana, Laos and Mozambique.
Innovation also has a big impact on access to financial services. In Bangladesh, an IFAD-supported project used innovative delivery mechanisms to give thousands of poor farming households access to financial services and vital agricultural technologies. More than 200,000 people previously excluded from microfinance coverage became active clients. Participants could invest in agriculture and take up innovative, environmentally friendly technologies such as deep placement of urea super granules, leaf colour charts and pheromone traps. With increased profits, farmers were able to buy or lease land, vaccinate livestock, and create employment opportunities for others in their villages. The project has now been scaled up within the country and has received the Development Impact Honors award from the United States Treasury Department.
Technologies that the rest of the world takes for granted can be tailored to the needs of small producers and microenterprises in remote areas. Mobile phones can give farmers in remote villages access to banking services or real-time information on the weather or markets. In Swaziland, a rural finance programme is partnering with a local mobile phone operator to pilot ‘mobile money’ and self-service, mobile-operated automated teller machines.
Even a space-age technology such as satellite imagery can help rural communities. An IFAD partnership with the European Space Agency in Botswana is applying this technology through a project to monitor land use and crop health. Data generated by satellites will help the Ministry of Agriculture objectively assess vegetation coverage in rural areas. The information will be used to determine the impact of agricultural practices that are being promoted and to suggest appropriate adjustments. It may also be used to set up an early-warning system focused on desertification.
Agricultural research and development, of course, should meet the needs of small producers. A long-term partnership with the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan has promoted innovative uses of bamboo and benefited poor rural people across Africa, Asia and Latin America. This fast-growing perennial crop is now processed into a huge variety of products, including furniture, boats, kitchen utensils, charcoal briquettes and footwear. The programme also enables communities to substitute wood-based fuels with bamboo, thus contributing to energy security and reducing environmental degradation.
How does IFAD engage stakeholders from civil society, smallholders and the business community?
No one organisation or entity can tackle development challenges alone. To transform rural spaces and rural lives requires imaginative projects, partnerships and technologies. IFAD has gained a reputation as a trusted partner, not only among governments, but also among rural people themselves. It is therefore in a position to broker equitable investments in which rural people have a stake and also a voice. People are not objects of development; they must be engaged as agents of their own development.
The private sector – including smallholder farmers – has become the engine of growth in rural economies. This offers opportunities and risks to small producers, particularly when they are connected to larger, more powerful companies. IFAD plays a key role in reducing barriers, building trust and helping rural people create strong organisations that not only help them advocate for themselves, but also interact with private companies that can connect them to markets.
In Cambodia, a new project launched by IFAD and Intel Corporation is providing smallholder farmers with simple technologies that can make a big difference. In 2013, Cambodia was the world’s fifth largest exporter of rice, and aims to become an even bigger global player. Yet its agricultural sector has hurdles to overcome. The combination of Intel’s software and technology and IFAD’s agricultural expertise and know-how can provide a major boost to small farmers, who have been held back by outdated methods, the use of chemical pesticides, and cheap or poor-quality seeds. This example shows how government, the private sector and producers can come together to find mutually beneficial solutions.
How can the G20 leaders at Brisbane best help?
The explicit integration of the agriculture sector in the G20 Brisbane Action Plan would be a significant achievement. This should include agricultural research and development – essential building blocks for effective innovation in the sector. The action plan would bring together the growth strategies developed by each G20 member to collectively reach a goal of two per cent growth in gross domestic product above the currently projected level in the next five years. In addition, the Food Security and Nutrition Framework has been developed this year by the G20 Development Working Group. The upcoming meeting is an opportunity to recognise the need to boost investment in agriculture and food supply chains, create quality jobs in the sector, and raise agricultural productivity.