By Isaac Fletcher, contributing writer, Food Online
Farmer-led R&D may help support collaboration and productivity while supporting the global effort toward more sustainable foods
As global agriculture yields decline, farmer-focused research is needed to support sustainable foods, according to Agriculture: Engage Farmers in Research. In the article published in Nature magazine, authors Tom MacMillan, Director of Innovation at Soil Association, and Tim Benton, professor of the U.K.’s Global Food Security Program, contend that, “Sustainable supply of food hinges on agricultural innovation, but current investments neglect a key area for improving yields.”
Advances from existing research are plateauing, and the yields from some of the world’s most important food-producing regions — East Asia’s rice, Northwest Europe’s wheat, etc… — are no longer growing. In some cases, yields are actually declining. To address this issue, MacMillan and Benton argue that future innovations must be of smaller scale. Enhancing farmers’ R&D efforts could result in important small-scale breakthroughs for minimal extra cost.
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As it stands, the estimated combined value of investment in R&D from small farm businesses worldwide could be as high as $4 trillion. MacMillan and Benton point to organizations like the Duchy Originals Future Farming program as effective examples of supporting small-scale farm innovations. The program aims to help farmers sharpen their skills as innovators so that they can be more productive and less reliant on non-renewable inputs. Achieving these goals is beneficial to both the environment and the farmers’ bottom line, an important incentive to make these types of programs successful.
Aside from providing funding, the program also facilitates field labs, which bring together small groups of farmers to solve mutual problems. According to the article, so far 450 farmers have taken part in field labs addressing 20 different topics such as controlling black grass, a resilient weed that resists herbicides, and keeping hens alive to lay eggs for a second season. Driven by encouraging results, program directors hope to run 30 more labs throughout 2014.
Stressing the necessity for innovation on a small scale, the authors state, “We believe that field labs could boost farmers’ productivity by supporting low-cost innovations that fly below the radars of large research institutions.” If farmers are able to produce knowledge, they become more likely to adopt new practices and offer new insights that are relevant to specific local conditions. “The time has come to decentralize, diversify, and enrich agricultural R&D. Farmers — not scientists, outreach workers, or salespeople — are the essential players in any agricultural innovation system. Helping them will put food on the world’s tables.”