Farmers need confidence to take on new technology

Co-author of ‘Sustainable Intensification of Agriculture: Greening the World’s Food Economy’ and editor of the ‘International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability’, Professor Jules Pretty explores smallholders’ path towards sustainability.

With smallholder farmers making up the majority of the agricultural workforce in Africa, how can they be engaged in the push for sustainable intensification (SI)? 

The vast majority of SI has been taken up in what we might call developing countries, meaning that Africa, Asia and South America are leading, when compared to farms in Europe, North America and so forth. A lot of that is smallholders, and I think this is because we have communicated the notion that there are different futures for farmers; including low-cost futures, particularly in terms of purchasing inputs, the exchange of knowledge and social capital, and the deployment of natural capital.  

The various stages of sustainability, as we conceive it, are framed around a model of ‘redesign’, which focuses first of all on improving efficiency. For example, if you’re going to use pesticides, spray them very carefully and don’t waste them. So the first step is substitution – substituting biological control methods for pesticides, for example – to bring new technology into an existing system. The real transformation comes when you start rethinking the design of whole agricultural systems, looking for synergies between different components, between crops and trees, water deployment, soils and so forth. We are in quite a different and encouraging space now, with smallholders at the vanguard of social, as well as agricultural change, and the evidence for it is emerging in quite a positive way. 

The book argues for the development of ‘social capital and infrastructure’, which can aid the flow of information at farm level. Is there a role for emerging technology in this area? 

Social capital – relations of trust, reciprocity and socially embedded rules – is a critical prerequisite for sustainability. You might have watershed development groups or microfinance groups or irrigation groups; the key is that if you can get people working together, and ensure the message is received collectively and learned practically, but still specific to their own farms, then they are more likely to share the knowledge with others. A good example is farmer field schools, which emerged in Indonesia and the Philippines at the end of the 1980s and aimed to redesign SI. There are now 15-20 million farmers worldwide who have been through the schools, and have subsequently adopted practices that are much more sustainable.  

The risks of experimenting for smallholders are extremely high – you’ve only got to have one bad season and you haven’t got any food. So if somebody from another place comes to your farm and says “do this” or “do that,” you have every right to be sceptical about it. That was the old model; we need an enabling, participatory environment that builds the confidence of farmers to experiment, so that they are engaged in continuous change. That is what we pick up on in the book: the need for a new agricultural ‘knowledge economy’. 

What policy lessons can be learned from the current state of SI in developing countries? 

I think the best example of effective policy support for SI comes from one state in India, Andhra Pradesh, which promoted ‘zero budget natural farming’. They are building strong networks of social capital, with the ambition to have all 25 million of the state’s farmers using this by 2025. However, there are very few examples of a singular integrated effort to spread new agricultural practice across the whole of the landscape. There are individual policy areas, like irrigation management in Thailand, or microfinance support through NGOs in Bangladesh, all of which tend to be sectoral. The next challenge is to find ways of creating national- or state-level policy, like in Andhra Pradesh, to integrate all of this.  

One reason why policy integration is difficult is due to strong countervailing forces. There are companies and sectors that will lose a lot of business transitioning to sustainability. You can expect a fight whenever there is a transition of this sort, which is why policymakers often find it difficult to grasp what they should do.

Sam Price

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.