Smallholder farmers are particularly vulnerable to risks. They are vulnerable to risks from disease, pests, drought, floods and unpredictable rainfall – and they are also vulnerable to the fact that we are increasingly reducing the variety of products that we are producing and consuming.
“Out of the 7000 food crops that we know of in the world, 50% of our plant-derived calories are coming from just 3 species; rice, maize and wheat – and this is increasing the vulnerability of the systems where smallholders operate” said Ann Tutwiler, incoming DG for Bioversity International (a member of the CGIAR Consortium) addressing an event in Geneva last week on “Innovation Systems for Family Farming.”
The event was held to coincide with the high-level segment of the ECOSOC Substantive session to strengthen dialogue among Member states, UN organizations and other stakeholders on the need to promote innovation and innovation capacity for family farms. CGIAR, FAO, GFAR and IFAD pledged to increase their joint efforts to boost the contribution of science, technology and innovation to enable family farmers to improve agricultural productivity and livelihoods whilst conserving and enhancing natural resources.
In a joint statement they urged the international community to promote agricultural innovation systems that are particularly responsive to the needs of smallholder family farmers.
Why is innovation so important to family farming?
In 2012, the International Institute for Environment and Development said, “it is increasingly clear that much publicly funded research does not meet the needs or priorities of today’s farmers, particularly of those working on a small scale in low- and middle income countries …In large part, the disconnect between research and farmers derives from a lack of participation… This is especially true of women.”
Innovation, and the policies and practices that support them, are vital to family farming partly because smallholders are producing far below their potential yields. Sometimes the yield gap is due to a lack of access to inputs such as seeds or fertilizers. But often the gap is a knowledge gap – and knowledge is the tool of innovation.
We need to find ways that address the needs of family farming with new technologies, new approaches, that reach across the whole food system including; sustainable productivity increases, reduction in post-harvest losses, and support systems and services.
CGIAR is piloting a number of new approaches to change how research is conducted, and how our knowledge is shared:
Seeds for needs
In sub-Saharan Africa, Asia Pacific and Central America, Bioversity International as part of a wider CGIAR collaboration on climate change, is investigating how agricultural biodiversity can help minimize climate change risk to crop production. Family farmers take part in seed trials to compare different crop varieties, sending back their observation data to researchers using scorecards. Trials to replace the traditional scorecards for recording data with mobile phones should offer a more cost-effective and speedy method to exchange knowledge about how agricultural biodiversity can mitigate climate associated risks and one that will allow many more farmers to take part.
Fodder systems for livelihoods and the environment
The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) has worked with family farming communities in remote highlands of Ethiopia to improve the value chains for a range of crops and livestock products. Previously the communities’ livestock grazed in the valley together watched over by the family children. But the grazing land was becoming degraded.
Now animals are kept on the family farms and fodder is brought to them from enclosed grazing areas collectively managed by the community. Children no longer need to watch livestock, they can attend school. Poorer households without animals, usually headed by women, can also earn income selling fodder.
Global Rice Science Partnership (GRiSP) shows the value of powerful partnerships
GRiSP (the CGIAR Research Program on Rice) has adopted a whole new approach to its commodity research, by working with partners they are making sure that new varieties actually make it to the farmers’ fields.
“We work much more closely with National Agricultural Research Systems, to co-develop varieties and make sure that they respond to what the farmers want and what people want to eat” said GRiSP Director Bas Bouman. “Then we work with other partners, including the private sector, to develop seed distribution. Somebody needs to multiply the seeds for farmers to buy. Somebody needs to guarantee that the seed is good quality, and somebody needs to bring it to market.”
Broader issue than just producing food
Family farming links together agriculture and food security with the wider issues of youth, gender, migration and the environment. It’s a much broader issue than just producing food. The context is rapidly changing — agricultural innovation and adaptation will be required if we are to meet the challenges of the Millennium Development Goals both now and in the future.
“To succeed, we need to invest in innovation systems and family farming like never before,” said Ann Tutwiler. “Agricultural research and international cooperation are critical going forward. And so is ensuring that the farmer can participate in research activities to ensure that it is relevant to their needs and that knowledge can be shared between the scientists and the farmers to yield meaningful results that are put into practice.”
The United Nations General Assembly has declared 2014 to be the International Year of Family Farming (IYFF). CGIAR looks forward to contributing further to raise the profile of family farming and its role in alleviating hunger, poverty and improving livelihoods while protecting the environment and biodiversity – throughout 2014 and beyond.
Joint statement for the ECOSOC side event on “Innovation Systems for Family Farming (FAO, CGIAR, GFAR, IFAD)
2014 International Year of Family Farming (World Rural Forum)
Photo credit: Neil Palmer/CIAT