Organic farmers are doing it for themselves

June 20, 2012

Mićo Tatalović

Mićo Tatalović
Deputy news editor, SciDev.Net

Although governments are expected to agree on an outcome document at Rio+20, critics and campaigners say the initiatives launched at the sidelines of the summit by countries, NGOs and other stakeholders may be just as – if not more – important in terms of real change.

One of the first such ‘voluntary pledges’ announced on Friday (15 June) by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), was a global organic agriculture research network scheduled to launch in February 2013.

Flickr/ Find Your Feet


“The idea is to integrate existing organic agriculture research networks at the local, national and regional level,” Urs Niggli, director of Research Institute of Organic Agriculture and a professor at University of Kassel-Witzenhausen, both in Switzerland, told SciDev.Net. Niggli is hoping that through the new network they can build a series of research projects focused on the South that would have a high impact on famers’ wellbeing.

His center is already conducting long-term trials evaluating organic farming systems in a range of developing countries and “most of them are research projects where farmers are involved, a very positive development.”

The network’s outcomes would include profiling success stories to make organic farming more visible to policymakers and scientists, and to mainstream it.

Carlo Scaramella, coordinator with the World Food Programme, told SciDev.Net:

“This research could help us understand in which context certain solutions are most affordable and most appropriate.”

“Enhancing the ability of governments, and community stakeholders to implement organic farming in a systematic manner would probably help effectively realise better and more resilient food security – and that would be an extraordinary outcome.”

This blog post is part of our coverage of Rio+20: United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. To read news and analysis on Science at Rio+20 please visit our website.

What is an appropriate technology?

May 29, 2012

Naomi Antony

Naomi Antony
Assistant news editor, SciDev.Net

It’s day one of Tech4Dev 2012, and the question on everyone’s lips is ­­- “What is an appropriate technology?”

I sat in on some fascinating presentations that aimed to answer this question by looking at water management technologies in India and Africa.

The one that provided the most food for thought was a talk by Ravinder Malik from the New Delhi branch of the International Water Management Institute.

Presenting research on the use of treadle pumps in the Cooch Behar district of West Bengal, India, Malik broke the question down and asked “Who are technologies appropriate for, the promoters or the users?”

Treadle pumps are simple and cheap – but that doesn’t mean farmers want them. Credit: Mukul Soni

Treadle pumps use body weight and leg muscles to lift water from a depth of up to eight metres for use in irrigation. They were introduced in Bangladesh to great success in 1985, boosting crop productivity and helping to lift small farmers out of poverty. To date, 1.5 million of the pumps have been sold across the country.

On the strength of this success, the pumps were introduced and disseminated in India from the mid-1990s onwards.

But nearly 15 years later, says Malik, “promoters and donors are assuming status quo conditions [in India] and pouring huge amounts of money into treadle pumps”.

They are equating sales with demand, assuming that ownership implies usage – but rural India’s socioeconomic and technological landscape has changed.

Treadle pumps succeeded for a variety of reasons, including their simple design and their suitability for the conditions at the time – low irrigation water requirements, a lack of electricity in villages, and the high cost or awkwardness (for example, heavy diesel-powered pumps) of alternative technologies.

Nowadays, farmers have access to small, lightweight, fuel-efficient diesel-pumping kits and have improved access to electricity. There are increases in irrigation water requirements that treadle pumps can no longer meet. And there are increasing concerns over drudgery – many family members have refused to tread because of health-related concerns.

In Cooch Behar, just eight per cent of farmers are using the treadle pumps that they originally purchased. They told Malik and his team that they will never go back to using them – even though they are more affordable – preferring instead to buy or rent motorised pumping technologies.

“Low cost and affordability doesn’t mean farmers will accept and adopt,” Malik said, “and sales cannot be used as a proxy for adoption”.

“Treadle pumps have no new takers, they are slowly being phased out. Any more money pumped in is unlikely to serve the intended purpose of improving accessibility of irrigation for small farmers and helping them in improving their income.

“Tech adoption is a dynamic process and an intervention appropriate at one point in time and under given conditions may not remain so.”

He called for regular and independent monitoring in the field to understand the changing landscape of smallholder irrigation and ensure that farmers have access not only to technologies they need – but technologies they want.

This blog post is part of our 2012 Tech4Dev International Conference coverage. 

Sustainable development through comics

April 20, 2012

Luisa Massarani

Luisa Massarani
Latin America regional coordinator, SciDev.Net

Communicating science in Mexico, as in any developing world country, can be a big challenge. Most of Mexico’s estimated 100 million inhabitants have only received eight years of basic education. For every 100 inhabitants over the age of 15 years, eleven females and seven males are illiterate.

On the other hand, comics are enormously popular in Mexico. Having this situation in mind, Aquiles Negrete, a researcher at the Autonomous National University of Mexico, has been describing his exploration of the use of comics to communicate science issues at PCST.

An image from the comic, "Sustainable Love"

His Sustento de amor (sustainable love) comic is a love story that uses visuals and a skilled narrative to disseminate information about sustainable development and natural resources  in Mexico and Central America.

Negrete has also developed what he calls the ‘RIRC’ method to evaluate the project, which uses four memory tasks, and  explores different levels of understanding.

“Our results show that comics can be an interesting tool for communicating science,” he says.

Also from Mexico, Rolando Riley from the Autonomous University of Chiapas, is using visual information to get science news and ideas to Chiapas, a state in which access to scientific information is poor.

“About 35 per cent of the population do not speak Spanish, the official language,” he explains.

One of the pilot projects is on nutrition, with a view to targeting women, because they “actually decide what the family will eat”.  Two other pilot projects will start soon, focusing on technology applied to agriculture, and the use of natural resources.

This blog post is part of our Public Communication of Science & Technology (PCST2012) conference coverage.

News story from the conference: Dryland regions unite to combat food security

June 30, 2011

A. A. Khan

Credit: WCSJ

30 June 2011 | EN

[DOHA, QATAR] A global alliance to boost food security in the arid regions, through common research and adoption of new technologies is soon to be launched, a conference has heard.

The Global Dry Land Alliance, a Qatar government initiative, would enable member states to pool their research efforts to strengthen food security in arid countries.

Drylands make up about 45 per cent of the world’s land area where around two billion people live. But these countries do not share equal financial resources for combating food insecurity. The Alliance would provide technical or financial support to struggling member states through food security programmes, agricultural development investment partnerships and new regional centres of excellence.

Full news story here

An agricultural journalist struggles on

June 30, 2011

Farmers' stories still get little space in the mainstream media. Credit: Flickr/IRRI Images

250,000 is the estimated number of Indian farmers who committed suicide between 1997 and 2010, whose troubles Jaideep Hardikar has been trying to expose while reporting farm issues in his country.

Despite the sense of urgency, Hardikar, a veteran journalist at Indian newspaper The Telegraph, still finds himself struggling to get agricultural stories published.

All farming journalists face it and, despite the looming threats against farmers’ livelihoods, their stories still get little space in the mainstream media.

“People who we report on are not our readers, not ones who are poor,” Hardikar told the meeting. “So, we the media tend to avoid telling the stories that our readers are not interested in … we prefer to pick stories relating to stock markets, industries, and so on.”

Hardikar said he has tried tactics like adding more human angles to farm stories or even trading off his stories with economic angles.

“It’s still difficult,” he said.

Despite all the setbacks, he has not given up, and urged the audience: “Your readers might not like it, but it is the truth. So, try to find space for it as you can”.

If he has not yet given up, why do other journalists working in far more comfortable settings give up so easily on reporting on those who often lack a voice?

Pratchaya W., SciDev.Net contributor

Crucial science stories get lost in a time of political turmoil

June 30, 2011

It is easy to forget, amidst the violence in so many Middle Eastern countries, that the Arab region will face enormous food security problems unless action is urgently taken.

Only science research and technology transfer can hope to solve this enormous problem, said experts from the International Fund for Agriculture Development.

Important science stories get lost during political turmoil. Credit: Flickr/Kodak Agfa

Lack of water, and degradation of the agricultural land because of climate change are the key threats to the future of the region, said Mahmoud El-Solh, director-general of the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas.

Besides these problems, transborder diseases – such as the wheat rust, Ug99 – threaten agriculture. But science research and technology transfer cannot play their role unless the politicians are convinced of their necessity.

“We cannot do anything  if the politicians do not make serious policy to fight this challenge,” said Hussein Awad, of the West Noubaria Rural Development Project in Egypt.

The Arab region suffers from many problems at all levels, especially from a lack of security caused by political conflict, revolution and an increase in organised crime.

As a science  journalist in the Arab world it is difficult to draw the attention of politicians to this. How do we go about this? That is our challenge.

Hichem Boumedjout, SciDev.Net contributor in Algeria

“Stop giving away your land …”

February 12, 2011

Per Pinstrup-Anderson of Cornell University in United States. Credit: IFPRI

They used force to conquer territories in the colonial days. Now, they are using negotiation to obtain large tracts of land to do farming in Africa. But, hold on a minute: how well fed are African people that they can rent out productive land in countries like Ethiopia to middle-income countries to cushion them against the anticipated food deficit and fluctuations in the global food market?

Per Pinstrup-Anderson, a professor of food, nutrition and Public Policy at Cornell University in the United States was categorical: “Stop giving away your land and support your small-holder farmers”.

If a country cannot invest in agricultural research, and the provision of public goods such as roads and functioning markets, hunger and malnutrition, with severe health consequences, will still be room-mates of smallholder farmers in Africa.

Woe for Africa! Most farmers there cannot access technologies that have been tested and shown to match their situation. Their soils are fast being depleted of nutrients. They lack post-harvest technologies for safe storage and safe transportation to markets.

And, without the right policy framework, efforts aimed at bringing experts together to address the challenges to linking agriculture to nutrition and health may be just a mirage. Without such a framework it will not be possible to do what this conference aims to do: leverage the three for the good of the poor in developing countries according to Pinstrup-Anderson.

Shockingly, the developing world is still stuck with a paradigm employed in the 1950s in Asia, which emphasised increased production. Governments must wake up to this: small scale farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa need infrastructure and farming technologies that would make them produce more on an existing piece of land. They need irrigation technologies, better seeds and nitrogen fixing methods to make soils richer in nutrients.

“Invest in agricultural research and collaborate with other leading institutions like the CGIAR to address people’s needs,” said Pinstrup-Anderson.

Ochieng’ Ogodo, Sub-Saharan Africa News Editor, SciDev.Net

SciDev.Net to blog from New Delhi agriculture conference

February 4, 2011
GM seeds by Monsanto

Credit: Monsanto

Next week, I will be attending an international conference on Leveraging Agriculture for Improving Nutrition and Health, organised by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and to be held in New Delhi from February 10-12, 2011.

Leaders in agriculture, nutrition and health from across the globe will gather to deliberate on how to create a more integrated system that mobilises agriculture to improve people’s nutrition and health.

The event will be opened by Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, and be guided by an advisory committee that includes John Kufuor, former president of Ghana and M.S. Swaminathan best known as the father of the green revolution in India

The conference will examine linkages between agriculture, nutrition and health and explore opportunities for improving nutrition and reducing health risks along the whole value chain.

I am looking forward in particular to hearing how individual countries are faring in their efforts to make these linkages, and what we can learn from them.

I will be blogging throughout the meeting, and tweeting from @scidevnet. Meanwhile check out our SciDev.Net spotlight, The Challenge of Improving Nutrition, and serve you with the conference deliberations as it progresses through this blog.

Ochieng’ Ogodo, Sub-Saharan Africa News Editor, SciDev.Net

What makes agricultural extension services tick?

July 4, 2010

Can agricultural extension services, designed to bridge agricultural research outputs with farmers, offer a model for making science understandable to society at large?

A session at ESOF 2010 pondered over what works in agricultural extension and why.

Panelists concurred that agricultural extension helps farmers put scientific knowledge into contexts they are familiar with. Pierre Labarthe from the National Institute for Agricultural Research (NRA), France, explained that “agricultural extension services are linked to universities in various countries and are created as a bridge between science and practical inputs for farmers. Each country has varying capacities to access and use scientific knowledge, but all of them need a clear picture on scientific production and the actual limits of the validity of the research outcomes.”

Agri extension services: from research to use

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), for example, found the cost of fertilisers was hobbling farmers’ productivity in Africa. So extension services are geared to advise on the use of locally available organic fertilisers, says IFPRI scientist Kristin Davis.

Farmers need to know how they can work at optimum levels in changing climate conditions, and how to adhere to food safety standards, she adds.

Moussa N’Dienor, scientist at the Institute of Research for Development, Senegal, points out that farmers are additionally having to address land and water management issues, as well as coping with the high competition and stringent quality requirements of international markets.

The snag is that, unlike large international research structures, rural advisory services are suffering from declining national support; and lack direction regarding investment priorities and evidence-based policy recommendations. The Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services, launched in January 2010, seeks to address some of these gaps.

The forum’s launch coincides with renewed interest in agricultural extension or advisory services that comes in the wake of rising food prices; renewed government and donor interest in agricultural and related advisory services; and a broad global commitment to restructure agriculture development institutions.

Marianne de Nazareth, SciDev.Net contributor

The road ahead

March 31, 2010

So it’s over. The first GCARD conference closed on a high, with hopes for a new era of agricultural research for development – and a ‘roadmap’ to guide the way.

Walking to the train station, I thought about how the weather had paralleled the tone of the conference. Day one (sunshine) started with optimism, tensions mounted on day two (grey and gloomy) when delegates felt they weren’t having enough of a say, frustrations came to the fore on day three (rain) when they got to air their concerns – and today was bright once again.

But it’s not all sunshine and roses. Amidst the celebrations of a conference generally considered a success, there were pertinent reminders that the work begins here.

Kathy Sierra, chair of the CGIAR fund council, urged the conference to get going sooner rather than later. “We need to move ahead and focus on results. Without that, the collaboration and communication will fade.”

GCARD global author Uma Lele echoed the urgency, with her simple but memorable mantra: “Action, action, action.”

And let’s not forget about investment. No matter how much you fine-tune research to the needs of the poor and get them involved, nothing can happen without funds. Incoming GFAR chair Monty Jones warned the conference “I will be seeking your money”, to peals of laughter. He was smiling. But he wasn’t joking.

Naomi Antony
Assistant news editor, SciDev.Net

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