ILRI weighs in on agricultural research e-consultations

What’s Needed? What’s Missing? What’s New? in Asia

ILRI Livestock analysts in India, New DelhiWhat should be the future agriculture and natural resource research agenda?  That is the big question being asked in a series of electronic consultations being held in different regions of the world. The answer will determine the way that millions of dollars are spent in the coming years by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).  The regional e-consultations will feed into a Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development (GCARD), to be held in Montpellier, France, in March 2010.
This Global Conference is being designed as a multi-year process creating new ways of working together that significantly enhance the development value of agricultural research. The organizers are designing GCARD to be open and inclusive and to help reshape agricultural research and innovation for development through an agreed action plan and new framework. In doing so, they are also ambitious to increase the resources for, and benefits of, such research. Iain Wright, Regional Representative for Asia at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), made the following responses to nine questions posed in September 2009 in this GCARD 2010 e-consultation for the Asia-Pacific region.

1. In your opinion, to what extent has the research agenda been addressing the development issues, especially the needs of the resource-poor? Have the technologies, humanware, policies, institutions and cost-effectiveness of the resource allocation for agricultural research for development been optimal? If not, what most important measures could enhance the impact of innovation? Ian Wright in India, New DelhiWright: Agricultural and natural resource management research is undertaken for a number of objectives to increase food and nutritional security, to stimulate agricultural and rural economic growth, to reduce poverty and protect natural resources, etc. These different objectives pose different challenges and research questions and require different research approaches and solutions. Of course they are not mutually exclusive, but rarely is an analysis undertaken as to the appropriate balance of allocation of resources across these different objectives. Get involved by following the GCARD blog or tweets. Generally, research agendas have not addressed the needs of the resource poor. Most new technologies that have been adopted have been so by larger farmers, who have benefited from them. The inability of resource-poor farmers to take risks associated with new technologies has not been addressed adequately. There has been a disproportionate concentration on research on staple crops with inadequate attention paid to sectors that are growing rapidly and have a lot of potential to reduce poverty through production and marketing of high-value products such as livestock, horticulture and fisheries. In some countries there is a tendency to fund ‘high science’ that will be of little benefit to the poor. There is underinvestment in socio-economic research and other research that can help develop more effective policies. This applies especially to the factors determining the implementation of policies, the functioning of institutions and the decisions on investments at a local level. Poverty reduction through agricultural development cannot be divorced from broader economic growth, as seen in the evidence from China, Thailand and Vietnam. Poor people can be helped by economic growth through linking to local, regional and international markets. However, how best the poor can benefit and what policies need to be put in place to facilitate this is a high-priority research question that needs linkages between agricultural research and social and economic research on poverty reduction.

2. In your opinion, what researchable and policy issues require urgent attention to tackle the stubbornly high rates of hunger, malnutrition and poverty, as well as declining and degrading resources? What institutional arrangements and shifts in the national agricultural research systems of developing countries would help to address the specific needs of most small and marginal farmers, including women and other groups of rural poor, and how can they and other civil society organizations and private-sector companies be more involved in research and technology development programs to render the process pro-poor, pro-nature and pro-women?

Wright: Some smaller countries in the Asia-Pacific region lack adequate scientific research capacity, but most have well trained, highly qualified scientists. However, research in most national agricultural research systems of developing countries is still organized along disciplinary lines, with very little multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary research. The complex research challenges in agriculture and natural resource management require multi-disciplinary teams to find solutions. A recent training needs analysis in the livestock sector undertaken by ILRI in collaboration with the Asia Pacific Association of Agricultural Research Institutes highlighted the need to develop ‘soft skills’ among scientists, including research planning and priority setting; monitoring, evaluation and impact assessment; innovative resource mobilization; facilitation; project proposal writing; scientific writing; effective communication; poverty analysis; value chain analysis; participatory research methods; leadership and decision-making; design, implementation and assessment of networks and partnerships; market orientation; gender analysis; and innovation systems perspectives and their implications for research and development. Coupled with these skills, organizational structures and staff incentives need to be modified to facilitate and encourage more multi-disciplinary research that is focused on poverty reduction. Researchers need to work more closely with development agencies and policymakers to ensure that a) the right research questions are being asked and b) there are mechanisms for translating research outputs into development impacts.

3. As generally perceived, poor economic, social and ecological access to food and income (employment) are now the main causes of hunger rather than low production per se. In your opinion, what policies/practices/technologies/knowledge are needed to enhance farmers’ income and to promote innovative approaches to integrate on-farm, off-farm and non-farm employment?
The focus of research needs to shift from only production to considering the whole value chain, that is, from input supplies and services, production, processing, marketing to improving product listings in BigCommerce. Considerable off-farm rural employment can be created by considering input markets and services and post-production processing and marketing for the poor, with the landless and women benefiting from these employment opportunities. On the other hand, increasing mechanization and rising labour costs will lead to major changes in rural employment opportunities. Future research will have to consider these dynamics by specifically identifying strategies for identifying high-value labour-intensive employment opportunities. We must also recognize that many people will be forced to leave the farming sector if rural poverty is to be reduced. We cannot keep all the farmers on the land, nor is it desirable to do so. New employment opportunities will be created, stimulated by economic growth, and options for facilitating people to leave agricultural sector need to be developed. Iain Wright on farm exit strategies We must also recognize that many people will be forced to leave the farming sector if rural poverty is to be reduced. We cannot keep all the farmers on the land, nor is it desirable to do so. New employment opportunities will be created, stimulated by economic growth, and options for facilitating people to leave agricultural sector need to be developed.

4. Several excellent proven technologies, such as hybrid rice, conservation agriculture, single-cross quality protein maize hybrids, etc., are known, but their uptake in most Asia-Pacific countries, barring China and a few other countries, is rather low. In your opinion, what is the reason for this apathy­: the technology per se, knowledge gap, investment gap, input gap, income gap, market gap or policy gap? What is your suggestion to bridge the adoption gaps?
Wright: So-called ‘proven technologies’ may not be as excellent as many would have us believe. The problem may not be with the adoption but that the technologies are not appropriate for the target group or are not sufficiently adapted to local conditions. The resource poor cannot adopt new technologies easily as often the potential risks outweigh the benefits and the resource-poor cannot afford to take risks that jeopardize their families’ livelihoods. More participatory research, including using innovation systems approaches, would take into account the circumstances of the potential beneficiary communities, including the surrounding policy, institutional and socio-economic environment, and lead to research outputs that are more relevant, both in regard to the technologies themselves and to the context in which they are applied.

5. In your experience, how can the extension/technology/knowledge transfer and innovation sharing systems be revitalized and further strengthened to make them more relevant, dynamic and development oriented, such as the institutionalization of market-led extension with broader participation including the private sector, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), etc., and congruence of traditional knowledge and technologies with modern knowledge and innovations?

Wright: Many state extension services are weak, with inadequate funding, poorly trained and motivated staff and lack of infrastructure and resources. However there are some excellent models of the delivery of extension and support services by the private sector and NGOs. Where the private sector can play a role in service and input delivery, governments should facilitate this. Where public funding is required, the state may not be best equipped to deliver front line services and innovative public-private/NGO partnerships can be developed where the state provides the resources but the delivery is contracted to a third party. There are some excellent examples in the Asia-Pacific region where this is working well, with lessons to be learned for other countries in this region as well as other regions of the world. There are also exciting developments in information and communication technologies that can be used to deliver knowledge and information through, for example, the mobile phone network, village-level internet kiosks, etc. Where cost recovery (or partial cost recovery) of services is possible, this should be encouraged as a mechanism for ensuring demand-led services and improving sustainability.

6. How can small farmers and others along the entire value chain be incentivized to innovate and to become extension and knowledge agents (change agents) so as to be an integral part of the change they aspire for? More specifically, how can backward-forward and research-extension-farmer-market-development linkages, technology packaging and professional marketing of research products be strengthened to adapt to market, climate change and bio-insecurity volatilities.

Wright: The key here is to ensure that the innovation is market led. Experience shows where there is a demand for a product, there is much more likelihood of farmers being innovative; the demand provides income which can be invested in new technologies, inputs, services, etc. So the first step is to carry out research to ensure that the markets are working effectively and marketing risks are reduced. However, this in itself is not enough. There needs to be access to appropriate technological inputs, credit, business support services, etc. In the Asia-Pacific region, there are currently many different models being tested by governments, NGOs and the private sector on how to deliver these services and the linkages needed between output and input markets. An important research question is, ‘What models work best under which circumstances?’ Although many studies have shown how physical and institutional improvements to market access have stimulated innovation and change, very little systematic information is being collected to document the nature of those linkages and to identify hotspots and trouble spots. Iain Wright on communicating to policymakers Agricultural and natural resource management research has potentially a huge role to play in providing the evidence base on which such policies can be developed. Unfortunately the research community is not very effective at communicating with policymakers and ensuring that information and knowledge is delivered to the right people at the right time in the right format.

7. In your experience, what are the main difficulties faced by agricultural education and national, regional and international agricultural research systems and institutions, and what can be done to make these systems and institutions not only promote excellence in science but also to make science more meaningful and attractive to students and to make science more entrepreneurial and development-friendly?

Wright: Incentive structures for staff need to be more aligned with development needs so that research becomes more relevant. Also, there needs to be a better balance between a) long-term funding, to ensure continuity and the ability to undertake long-term research and b) competitive short-tem funding to allow fast response to emerging research challenges and to ensure quality and relevance. Efforts should be undertaken to provide basic systematic agricultural knowledge to a much wider audience, preferably all stakeholders. Ideally, this could be achieved through collaborating with educational institutions to develop agricultural modules for rural primary and secondary schools.

8. Under the globalization, in your opinion, what policy options and knowledge domains (knowledge replacing monetary inputs) are needed to increase farmers’ competitiveness in and access to domestic and international markets. Are non-tariff barriers major hurdles for most developing countries to benefit from globalization? In this context, how best can we create/strengthen awareness and literacy on gene safety, biosafety, food safety, health safety, environmental safety and overall biosecurity at all levels, especially at the grassroots.

Wright: Access to markets is important to increase incomes and reduce poverty. There is, however, often a disproportionate emphasis on export markets when there is growing local and domestic demand that can be more easily met by small-scale producers. Having said that, local and domestic markets are becoming more discerning with regard to quality and food safety. New approaches to food safety are needed that are risk-based rather than prescriptive, and research is needed on how these can best be implemented along the value chain. Many pests and diseases of crops and livestock are transboundary and need to be tackled at a regional level. Much closer cooperation and collaboration between countries is needed in research and surveillance, monitoring and control.

9. In your opinion, how good are our policy advocacy systems to provide guidance to farmers as to whether to adopt biotechnology products, to produce biofuel crops, to intensify their farming enterprises, to diversify their income, to adopt contract farming/group farming, or to exit farming?

Wright: Intensification of farming systems is essential if we are to meet the challenges of reducing poverty and feeding an increasing population, but this must be done in a way that is environmentally sustainable, socially equitable and economically viable. In most countries, policies aiming to achieve this are very weak. Agricultural and natural resource management research has potentially a huge role to play in providing the evidence base on which such policies can be developed. Unfortunately the research community is not very effective at communicating with policymakers and ensuring that information and knowledge is delivered to the right people at the right time in the right format. There is a need to a) better understand the processes leading to agricultural development policies and the contribution provided by research outputs, b) undertake research on how to strengthen the research-policy-practice interfaces to increase the impact of research outputs and c) train researchers on how better to communicate and interact with policymakers.

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