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Agricultural innovation: The missing link to feed the planet
01 May 2013
By: Martina Spisiakova

Today, our planet is feeding about seven billion people. It is estimated that by 2050, it will need to feed another two billion. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the planet will require a 70-percent increase in global food production including a 100-percent increase in developing countries.

But where will increased food production come from? Already limited land is increasingly being used for other purposes, agricultural productivity growth is decreasing and soils are being depleted and degraded. Most importantly, the variability of our climate and growing water shortages are challenging agriculture today. These challenges need to be addressed if increasing food demands are to be met.

In this context, agriculture has re-appeared on the world agenda. During the just-concluded G20 leaders’ summit in Mexico - one of the most important multilateral events this year - leaders agreed to promote greater public and private investment to promote agriculture and food security, develop technology and increase the productivity of the sector.

Smallholder agriculture in particular plays a role in addressing the concerns of poor rural people who are both producers and buyers of food. In the Asia-Pacific, the availability of arable land per person is just one-fifth of the rest of the world.

The small average size of landholdings means agriculture cannot advance without effective agricultural innovation systems that generate innovative options and make new technology available to smallholders. Smallholder agriculture requires different solutions to increase land productivity.

International and national research organizations are playing an important role in agricultural innovation systems. Many of the advancements in agriculture, especially improved wheat and rice that marked the Green Revolution, originated from research that benefited farmers around the world. We often hear that to increase food production and sustain agricultural growth, we need new technologies to trigger a second green revolution.

But is the availability of technology really the problem? Experience shows that many agricultural technologies already exist. Often they are developed in parallel, such as many different solar dryers.

How efficient is it for development actors investing their valuable resources in their own basic research systems? Shouldn’t we rather invest resources in technology transfer to adapt and adopt solutions that have already been developed in other places and by other organizations? Another issue is that often, technologies which are developed do not leave the shelf and therefore never reach farmers.

Technology transfer is a major challenge in addressing improved agricultural productivity. It is the missing link that requires active participation by farmers, governments, researchers and other stakeholders in innovation systems.  

Agricultural extension services, farmer organizations and nongovernmental organizations in particular have huge potential to reach farmers with improved technologies and the knowledge they need to be more productive: produce more food on smaller land, earn higher incomes and enhance their livelihoods. Linkages need to be made between these actors through networking, sharing knowledge, and identifying and prioritizing needs to bring improved technologies to the field.

Governments are crucial in this process, since their investment in improving local services, especially agricultural extension, can determine how quickly enhanced technologies reach farmers and how much food will be cultivated and traded, thereby benefitting not only farmers but society as a whole.

South-South cooperation, if well-coordinated and facilitated through various national, regional and international networks, has significant potential to bridge all these organizations so that knowledge is shared, the wheel is not re-invented and resources are managed more effectively. Agricultural extension requires more knowledge of best practices, incentives and commitment to assist farmers in increasing agricultural productivity.

The current organization of knowledge, science and technology cannot adequately deal with the challenges to sustainable food systems because information on food, health, agriculture, forestry, landscape management, rural areas, the environment, climate, ecology and policy trends continue to reside in separate “knowledge silos.”

The Network for Knowledge Transfer on Sustainable Agricultural Technologies and Improved Market Linkages in South and Southeast Asia (SATNET Asia) has recently been implemented to address this issue by strengthening South-South dialogue and intraregional learning on sustainable agriculture technologies and trade facilitation. Thereby, it aims to contribute to improved food security and nutrition of the poorest and most vulnerable people in South and Southeast Asia.

The network targets various agents along domestic and regional value chains who play a role as change agents and innovators. More than 20 institutions in target countries are already participating in the project, and the network is open to include additional organizations that work in the areas of research, advocacy and capacity building for agriculture and food trade. Through these agents, the project aims to benefit smallholder farmers, small-scale entrepreneurs and other poor and vulnerable members of the value chains.

The project is financed by the European Union and implemented by the Center for Alleviation of Poverty through Sustainable Agriculture (CAPSA), in partnership with the Asian and Pacific Center for Transfer of Technology, the trade and investment division of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), The World Vegetable Center and the Food Security Center of the University of Hohenheim.

The network welcomes new participants to work together towards the goal of addressing the missing link and reaching smallholder farmers and rural small entrepreneurs through improved transfer of knowledge on sustainable agricultural practices and facilitation of intraregional trade.


Martina Spisiakova is knowledge management officer at the Center for Alleviation of Poverty through Sustainable Agriculture, based in Bogor, West Java.

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