A new wave of small-scale agricultural innovation will boost yields and protect the planet, contend Tom MacMillan and Tim G. Benton.
Climate change threatens a creaking food system in which harvests are already lagging behind rising demand1, 2. A sustainable supply of food hinges on agricultural innovation, but current investments neglect a key area for improving yields.
Since the 1970s, agricultural research and development (R&D) has invested mainly in a few research institutes equipped with cutting-edge instruments. For example, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, responsible for much of the public research spending in food security in the United Kingdom, invested 27% of its 2010–11 budget in just three institutes. Multinational seed and agrochemical companies invest billions of dollars to develop products in hopes that they will be used by millions of farmers.
This one-size-fits-all approach has had qualified success. In a 2011 analysis3, average global crop yields increased by 56% between 1965 and 1985, and by 20% from 1985 to 2005, underpinned by increasing inputs of non-renewable resources.
But advances are slowing. According to a 2013 study4, yields have plateaued in some of the world’s most important food-producing regions, including east Asia (for rice) and northwest Europe (for wheat). In some countries, yields have declined.
The next wave of innovation must be at smaller scales. What one farmer can do to boost yield or efficiency is not necessarily the same as for a farmer hundreds of kilometres away with different soil, microclimate, topology and methods. How well crops and livestock grow depends on the interaction of genes, management and environment. As weather patterns fluctuate, gains in production will depend ever more on innovating in context. Big knowledge flowing from institute to farm must be complemented by local knowledge.
Enhancing farmers’ own R&D could reap big rewards for minimal extra cost. Farmers everywhere are practical experimentalists who understand the idiosyncrasies of their land5. Modern agronomy evolved out of practices such as rotating crops to rebuild soil nutrients, fertilizing fields with manure, and adding lime to soil to alter pH. Even technologies not invented by farmers — new kit, seeds or chemicals — are adapted by them to fit their circumstances.
Such essential contributions are rarely recognized in official assessments of agricultural R&D. These count farmers as users, rather than makers, of knowledge. When the US Department of Agriculture tots up the US$20 billion that the global private sector invests annually in agricultural R&D, it does not include that done by farmers6. Makers of farm machinery, pesticides, seeds and other ‘inputs’ invest around 3–11% of their revenue in R&D. Globally, if farmers’ innovations were valued at just 0.5% of farming production — worth $4 trillion — that would match formal R&D investment from the private sector.
Some of the best returns can come from helping farmers to assess their own ideas. Until now, such initiatives have been at arm’s length from formal science, and almost exclusively in the developing world. Our involvement in a farmer-focused innovation programme in the United Kingdom has convinced us that such participatory R&D could also boost agricultural innovation in rich countries.
Farmer-centred approaches are not new. In villages in Kenya, rice fields in Indonesia and other places out of reach from industrialized agriculture, group learning programmes recognize and support farmers as innovators.
The best known of these is the farmer field school approach, in which groups of farmers meet regularly to learn alongside their neighbours. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization set up the first such school in Indonesia in 1989, aiming to reduce rice farmers’ reliance on pesticides by enabling them to observe, identify and actively manage pests’ natural enemies.
Since then, at least 10 million smallholder farmers have taken part in field schools across Asia, Africa and Latin America. This year, a meta-analysis7 of 71 projects found that farmers’ experiences of these schools vary enormously, with targeted initiatives being more successful than large-scale national programmes. In targeted initiatives, participants gained knowledge, changed practices and consequently netted higher yields and incomes.
Inspired by the approach, a UK programme adapts participatory learning to suit farmers in the industrialized world, who, in many cases, are not short of capital, training or access to knowledge. Piloted in 2012, the Duchy Originals Future Farming Programme is funded by the Prince of Wales’s Charitable Foundation, in turn funded by sales of products through the supermarket chain Waitrose. The work is led by two charities, the Soil Association in Bristol (at which T.M. works, and T.B. serves on the programme steering group) and the Organic Research Centre in Newbury. The aim is to help farmers to sharpen their skills as innovators so that they can be more productive with fewer non-renewable inputs — good for the environment and their bottom line.