Innovation and agriculture

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DR. WILLIAM DAR

First of two parts
In my two-part series on Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA), I stated a number of times the importance of adopting technologies to make agriculture adaptive and resilient to drastic weather changes. In fact, there are a lot of technological solutions available for the agricultural sector to not only achieve CSA but more importantly, to increase yields and incomes of smallholder farmers.

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Also, there is a need to approach farming from a perspective of making it more profitable and a rewarding vocation for farmers.

So let’s talk about innovation!

The need to use technology to increase farm yields and incomes is more critical now because climate change is projected to further reduce global agricultural production by 10-20 percent by 2050 while demand for food will increase by 70 percent.

For starters, using improved varieties and hybrid technologies is one good way to increase farm production. Based on the research of InangLupa that I founded and continue to lead, improved varieties and technologies can produce yields up to 300 percent compared to national yields.

For example, the national average for rice and corn is 4 tons per hectare while it is 7-8 tons/ha for improved and hybrid varieties for both crops. In the case of coconut, the national average is 45 nuts per year, which is very low compared to 60-150 nuts/year for improved and hybrid varieties.

But should farming in the Philippines be mostly about the rice, corn and coconut that are planted in over 80 percent of farms in the country? Why not diversify to more profitable crops?

When I say diversification, I do not mean we abandon rice, corn, or even coconut production; what we should do is to plant high-value agriculture and convert to multi-cropping systems on lands where rice farming is least productive.

Specifically, less productive upland and rainfed lowland rice farms will be converted to the growing of higher value vegetables, fruits, ornamentals and industrial tree crops like coffee, oil palm, rubber, cacao, and hybrid coconuts.
Meanwhile, there should be further production intensification and mechanization in highly productive irrigated rice lands to drive down costs.

The shift to high-value agriculture, however, should assure farmers that they also reap financial rewards because in the Philippines, it is common to see traders and processors earning much, much more than the farmers themselves. This is where the IMOD framework becomes important.

IMOD stands for Inclusive Market-Oriented Development where the real needs and preferences of farmers are understood; research is generated for products and services that harness the power of the markets; and research-for-development as a long-term continuum is recognized.

IMOD also has four key words: innovation, inclusiveness; markets; and resiliency.

Innovation takes when farmers develop more products from raw farm produce, and even plant other crops that can be processed into more finished products.

Inclusiveness is making sure that farmers get their fare share of the fruits of production. This can be achieved if farmers organize themselves into organizations or groups so they can optimize production by pooling their resources to adopt mechanization and other farming technologies. More importantly, the organizations or groups can become profitable business entities that can have a stronger bargaining power when dealing with processors and traders.

But in order for farmers to earn more, they should be linked to markets both local and export, and also for raw and processed products. And if possible, farmers should be assisted in bypassing the layers of middlemen.

Eventually, organized farmers who earn more can adopt measures to make their farms more resilient to the effects of climate change. This paves the way for resiliency. Among the steps they can take is planting cash crops that help check soil erosion and act as windbreakers for smaller and more vulnerable crops, and investing in facilities like small water impounding systems so water would still be available during the dry season.

Another system to initiate more innovation in agriculture is Agribusiness Incubation (ABI), which is a derivative of Technology Business Incubation (TBI) that is widely applied in various industries where there is an abundance of technologies, and research and development (R&D).

Based on the experience of International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and India’s Department of Science and Technology, ABI is more than just forming a business enterprise and generating technology; it is about empowering small holder farmers through innovation.

Here are the components of ABI: Technology consulting that allows the participating institutions to identify or even develop the technologies farmers and stakeholders need in value adding or increasing farm production; capacity building and training to make sure farmers and stakeholders gain the required knowledge on technologies and how to run successfully a business enterprise; and access to funding that not only covers credit but also possible capital infusion by participants or venture capitalists.

ABI also includes business facilitation primarily involving linking enterprises to markets; and infrastructure and facilities referring to the establishment of R&D centers for farm technologies, physical facilities like classrooms to train farmers and stakeholders, and offices for the lead agencies involved in the ABI project.

I gathered that the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Agricultural Research (BAR) headed by Dr. Nicomedes Eleazar shall soon institutionalize a program on agribusiness incubation.

Finally, there is a need to incubate incubators, or for national and international institutions to create entities that will harness technology and entrepreneurship to empower smallholder farmers and even agribusiness firms.
Institutions should also do their part in innovating, so they can become more relevant to the needs of smallholder farmers.

One good step is for agricultural research to be increasingly done through public-private-farmer alliances. From what I have seen in the Philippines, R&D institutions in the government usually take the “lead” in research and technology development. R&D institutions forming partnerships with farmers have been limited so far, while cooperating with the private sector is perceived as inappropriate because of the profit motive of private companies.

But I also believe private companies are interested in undertaking R&D initiatives with the government if the intention is to really help small holder farmers. Also, the private sector also holds in high esteem government R&D experts and would be very interested in cooperating with them. In fact, many good R&D experts in the private sector started their careers with a government institution.

Eventually, all new partnerships must ensure that all stakeholders, especially the poor, gain by assuring access to propriety technologies and processes, and maximizing the utilization of innovations jointly owned with the private sector.

Equally essential is partnering with farmers for R&D activities to bridge the gap between researchers and those who till the soil. You would actually be surprised as to how much farmers can give in terms of research inputs, like what I have experienced when I led ICRISAT for 15 years until 2014.

With strengthened partnerships between researchers and farmers, innovations can reach the farmers faster and in a more systematic way. So far, the traditional extension model has proven to have shortcomings in making innovations and even basic scientific research reach the farmers. Why? Because R&D outputs developed from the top-bottom approach usually end up in shelves of research institutions primarily because the needs of the smallholder farmers were never understood fully or partially from the beginning of research activities.

In the next part of this series, I will discuss, among others, the “lab-to-land” approach in getting innovations to smallholder farmers.

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