In the name of development, a lot has been taking place in the agricultural sector. Statistics show that by 2050, we will have to feed 9 billion people and increase food production by 70%. Indeed, there is a need to invest more in agricultural research to achieve this, but what should be the priority and focus area of research?
The main purpose of research is to generate information and knowledge on challenges we are facing in agriculture and these are used to improve our farming system and production methods. However, over the years, many of the research conducted have not been in the interest of farmers, the community or the environment.
During the green revolution, it was believed that the use of hybrid seeds, fertilizer and other chemicals including pesticides and herbicides will increase yield of farmers, hence increasing their profit and improve livelihoods. To a certain extent, these have certainly contributed to a boost in agricultural production and raised the standard of living of many farmers globally. But in the process, there has been a tendency to have mono-crops, with large areas of land producing a single crop (very often for export, livestock feed or for bio-fuels), increased dependency on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and the use of hybrid seeds.
Experiences from different parts of the world demonstrate that, as “solutions” are only as good as their “implementation”. Some of the solutions meant to improve agriculture, had negative impacts, often in the way they were implemented:
Lack of crop-rotation and year-round production has led to land degradation. To make things worse, the over-use of fertilizer decreases the quality of the land, resulting in low yield
Increase in weed
Intensive production on the same area land without rotation has contributed to an increase in weed emergence, resulting in an increased use of herbicide. Given the fact that the price of these products is rising, the cost of production also increases
With the use of different pesticides over the years, some pests have developed an increasing resistance to these products. Often farmers reacted in increasing the dosages
Loss of biodiversity
Due to heavy use of chemical pesticides, insecticides and chemical fertilizers, we damage the natural resources of the bio-environment, like birds and insects
As chemical fertilizers used in the fields eventually to contaminate ground water which may effect our health, aquatic plants and animals
Loss of seeds
By emphasising too much on crop yield, with all of its aspects, there is an increasing fear to loose our bioversity of older seeds since the “new ones” gave better yield. As a consequence, many important (and natural) genes might be get lost.
In Africa, the 40% of its arable land which is under cultivation, is producing low yields. There is no doubt that research needs to be conducted: in many areas to boost production and investment in this area is a must. But while conducting research, the farming community and other stakeholders should be involved in the process to make sure that it will benefit each actor along the agriculture value chain, and within the communities as a whole. Agricultural production needs to be seen more, within the context of the whole bio-sphere, and not by itself.
Furthermore, research should as much as possible try to capture traditional or indigenous knowledge and adapt new technologies to them. While the introduction of new hybrid varieties might be justified in some areas, we do need to consider that smallholder farmers will become dependent and will no more be able to produce their own seeds. So research should also focus on improving the productivity of local varieties (growing practices, local adaptation, land use, and soil fertility management). In doing these, there should be favourable policies in place, which will facilitate in connecting the dots.
If we want to go towards sustainable development, we should also practice sustainable agriculture and avoid any kind of compromise with biodiversity or the well-being of the community. Research on Integrated Pest Management (IPM) should be encouraged to reduce the amount of pesticides being used in agriculture. Similarly, more research should be done on the use of compost, bio-fertiliser and bio-pesticides.
During the few years that I have been involved in agriculture in Mauritius, I have seen many farmers give up their agricultural practices because the cost of inputs was too high and their revenue decreased considerably. When analyzing their cost of production, the most costly inputs were the seeds, fertilizer, pesticides and other chemicals that they used. Even from my own experience, it is very clear how the use of these products were affecting the lives of smallholder farmers.
With the different technologies that we have today (genetic engineering for example), it is not difficult for us to find short-term solutions to the challenges we are facing in agriculture. But if we care for the future generations, it is high time we start reflecting on what should be the focus and priority areas of research and how can we transform agriculture in Africa without any kind of compromise.
My message to policy makers, researchers and development practitioners is to CHOOSE LIFE BEFORE PROFIT!
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Blog by Nawsheen Hosenally, one of the AASW social reporters.