Rolf Meyer

Agricultural technologies for developing countries

STOA Study (IP/A/STOA/FWC/2005-28/SC42). Brussels: European Parliament 2009
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Agriculture in developing countries and for development is back on the agenda. Around half of the world’s population is living in rural areas, with agriculture being the centre of their lives. The vast majority of farmers in developing countries (85%) are small-scale farmers, producing on less than 2 hectares. Furthermore, most of the poor in developing countries (75%) live in rural areas. Climate change will disproportionately affect developing countries and the poor, demanding for adaptations of agricultural production systems to climate change. Increasing production and strong economic growth in agriculture – with small-scale farmers in the centre of attention – are urgently needed for achieving poverty reduction and other Millennium Development Goals.

In this context, the STOA project "Agricultural technologies for developing countries" investigates the contribution of selected important agricultural production systems and their technologies as well as their management practices to higher food production and food security with focus on small-scale farmers. The following agricultural production systems were analysed in case studies:

From the assessed production systems, Conservation Agriculture, System of Rice Intensification, Agroforestry systems and Organic Farming can be described as complex agricultural production systems of intensification by higher agro-ecological and biological productivity, without necessarily increasing external inputs (mineral fertiliser, pesticides) and addressing input optimisation. This can be subsumed under low-input intensification: The aim is to achieve higher crop yields without or with restricted additional external inputs, combined with an improved soil and water management. These agricultural production systems have the potential to address especially the needs and possibilities of small-scale farmers.

Sustaining and improving soil fertility is a common key element. Key principles are diversified crop rotations, plant associations in case of perennial crops (especially in Agroforestry), permanent soil cover and minimal or no mechanical soil disturbance. At the same time, a better retention and use of water can be achieved. An important component is also integrated pest management. Additionally, technologies of Rainwater Harvesting can contribute to balance water demand of small-scale farmers in dry regions with irregular and scarce water supply.

An acceptance of modified agricultural production methods and improved livelihoods can only be achieved when parallel market access for the increased production is built up and the food chain requirements are met. The successful development, introduction and use of agricultural technologies and their integration into adapted practices in developing countries depend on many framing conditions. For example, longer-term investments like soil improvements depend on secure land rights.

In contrast, transgenic crops are until today restricted to a small number of cash crops and are mainly working in the frame of high-input production systems. The ability of transgenic crops to increase yields, to address food security and to be useful for small-scale farmers is discussed very controversially.. The complexity of transgenic crops lays mainly outside the agricultural production system, in demanding risk assessment and management as well as regulation strategies and policies, which are still considered to be inadequate or completely lacking in many developing countries.

The identified options for action concentrate on the development, adaptation and introduction of the agricultural production systems Conservation Agriculture, System of Rice Intensification, Agroforestry systems, Organic Farming and Rainwater Harvesting – in other words, on possibilities of intensification by higher agro-ecological and biological productivity, with low external inputs. With the European Consensus on Development, the European development policy is focused on the Millennium Development Goals and poverty reduction. The importance of agriculture for development and the key role of small-scale farmers therein still have to be implemented into the practice of the European development cooperation. The potential of low-input intensification should be much more recognised. For European development policies and development cooperation, options for action are:

Policy commitment: Political and societal commitment is a key factor for the introduction and spreading of low-input agricultural production systems, which demand important changes of traditional or introduced agricultural production methods. The aim should be to bring the appropriate production system into the main stream of agricultural activity.

Incorporation into European development policies: European actors in development policy should be an advocate for giving agriculture high priority and for low-input intensification focused on small-scale farmers. Key elements for achieving these goals are the integration into the complex system of European development cooperation, lead donor arrangements, integration into international programmes and processes and national and regional planning and programming.

Approaches for scaling-up: A single global strategy for up-scaling of Conservation Agriculture, System of Rice Intensification, Organic Farming, Agroforestry systems or Rainwater Harvesting will not work: The strategic approaches and principles must be tailored to countries, regions, farming systems or even local sites, reflecting specific technical, economic and social conditions. Nonetheless the need for local adaptation, important components for scaling-up approaches are farmer-to-farmer extension and Farmer Field Schools, linking large-scale and small-scale farmers, share of knowledge, support by counsel and education, setting of standards and certification, development of market access and assessing benefits.

Introducing financial support: Beside support for scaling-up initiatives and activities, financial support to small-scale farmers is needed for some initial investments and for compensating possible decreasing profits and risk during the adaptation period as incentives for changing production systems and introduction of price premiums.

Science and technology development: Conservation Agriculture, System of Rice Intensification, Organic Farming, Agroforestry systems and Rainwater Harvesting are dynamic systems which demand the development of new technological solutions, the making operational (and economically viable) of existing technologies and the local adaptation, particularly in smallholder systems. A close interaction between farmers and researchers is needed. Despite the importance of local adaptations, some areas overall relevant for science and technology development are production system research, mechanisation, biomass production and processing, pest control, water control, adaptation to climate change and socio-economic research.

Assessing the agricultural potential of GM plants: There are many arguments in favour of steering towards a problem-oriented approach in the assessment of potential future agricultural technologies and cultivation methods. For transgenic plants, this means examining green genetic engineering options without a predetermined result and in comparison to other approaches. In developing countries, potentials of GM plants are heavily dependent from adequate risk assessment and management, the solution of intellectual property right problems and the successful connection of centralised breeding activities with local adaptations.

European Agriculture: For the concerned promotion of production system changes in developing countries and the integration into development cooperation, own research capacities, knowledge bases and practical experience with low-input intensification in European agriculture are desirable. Based on own practices and experiences and research and development activities, the recommended actions in development policies would be more credible and better founded.


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