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Debating Ag Tech

Though myriad innovations promise to help agriculture, farmers in some part of the world have been slow to adopt these new technologies. Why?

Graduate students in a Delhi plant genetics lab.

Graduate students in a New Delhi plant genetics lab.

While attending the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, I moderated an on-line debate for SciDev.Net and the Cornell Alliance for Science that brought together interested people from around the globe to puzzle out the reasons.

Panel members included reporters Julien Chongwang, Luisa Massarani, Ranjit Devraj and Ochieng’ Ogodo; researchers Daniel Fonceka, Lughano Kusiluka and Julio Maia; SciDev.Net director Nick Ishmael Perkins, and Eugene, a Tanzania farmer. They were joined on-line by dozens of international commenters.

Two key points were repeatedly raised in the rousing two-hour debate: adoption is primarily hampered by poverty among small-holder farmers and lack of information about agricultural innovations.

Participants noted that poor farmers are often reluctant to take risks, and have little or no capital to invest. Subsidies could help more farmers adopt technology. Farmers also must be assured that the technology will be profitable for them.

A poor migrant farmer harvests crops by hand outside New Delhi.

A poor migrant laborer harvests crops by hand on a farm outside New Delhi.

Others observed that technology developers often communicate poorly with farmers, or not at all. It seems there’s a crucial need for trained communicators, and extension services to help educate farmers about new technology and ensure it’s properly used. Media also must do a better job of covering agricultural news. Radio programs and TV shows like Globo Rural have been quite successful in getting information to farmers.

Participants posted some 493 comments, in which they raised a number of other important issues, including:

• “Hybrid” technologies are needed that adapt innovations to specific situations. Farmers should be more closely involved in both developing technology and setting research priorities; a down-up, rather than top-down, approach would be useful. Scientists need to be retrained to first consider the society they are supposed to serve, before the science they enjoy.

Or as United Kingdom researcher Dominic Glover noted: “What’s needed is a horizontal, mutually respectful engagement between scientists and farmers, bringing their respective kinds of expertise side by side together in the farmer’s field, to work out suitable methods, techniques and strategies that will work in that time and place.”

• Cooperatives could help empower small farmers and allow them to share the cost of technology and profit from the investment.

• It’s often challenging to integrate technology into traditional farming practices. Additional funding sources could help innovations reach their targeted audience.

• It’s important to consider people’s cultural values, perceptions and emotions, and adopt approaches that make new technologies more understandable.

• Technology must be democratized through large-scale production that lowers prices; support local private sector organizations to develop regionally-suitable tech.

• Ag technology needs to be environmentally sustainable to encourage wider adoption.

• Technology isn’t just for farmers in the field. It’s also needed to support agricultural infrastructure, such as silos, crop forecasting, food processing, access to markets and market forecasting, access to affordable credit and insurance, and so on.

• Technology needs to be gender-friendly, reflecting how farm work is performed in developing nations. It should also focus not just on export crops, but those that support food-security.

• Many countries exhibit a lack of political will in adopting or supporting new technologies.

What I found most stimulating about the debate, aside from the thoughtful, well-informed comments, was the realization that this is not an insurmountable problem. All of the issues — aside, perhaps, from strengthening political will — can be rather easily resolved, resulting in technology that helps farmers survive and thrive.