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What priorities for improved agricultural technology?

Time (GMT +00) 13:00 14:30


Michael Lipton, Sussex University

Anita Ingevall, ILEIA

Centre for Information on Low External Input and Sustainable Agriculture.


Robert Tripp, ODI Research Fellow

Michael Lipton started by stating the basic problem not as population growth outstripping production, but of the ability of the poor to gain employment and to afford to buy food. Food production on small farms is critical to this for the large numbers of poor people who live in rural areas and are either deficit food producers or landless labourers. Yield growth must play a key role here: the workforce is increasing by 2% per annum, demand for labour must also grow (and so must its productivity). This is important not only for immediate agriculture employment and food access for the poor, it is also a critical starting point for non-agricultural economic and employment growth. Yield growth is important to agricultural employment and productivity growth as opportunities for expanding areas are limited and expansion of agriculture tends to be onto marginal land, leading to land degradation and unsustainable production.

Returns to agricultural research continue to be high, but since the mid 1980s yield growth has slowed as research has switched its emphasis in green revolution areas from yield growth to yield protection (against pests, water problems, etc), in international centres from plant productivity to other issues such as natural resource management and gender issues in agriculture, and from public to private funded research (with the latter lacking incentives to address the concerns of poor farmers).

Small farms continue to be important, however, as a major source of employment. Indeed, the proportion of the agricultural work force and land on small farms (defined as less than 5, 2 or 1 ha) has increased since 1965 in most poor countries.
A number of issues were picked out for further attention.

First, studies have shown that 'low potential' areas now offer the potential for higher returns to research investment than high potential areas, but these tend to be by-passed by private research. Transgenic innovations offer the potential for raising plants that are better able to resist moisture stress.

Second, increasing global and national water shortages will reduce water available for the production of (low value) staples, as only higher value crops will justify the cost of water. This will result in increasingly 'anti-poor' water distribution. Science needs to address this, not only through plant genetic development but also through improved hydraulic systems (there have been no dramatic advances in irrigation systems in modern history).

Third, crop nutrition enhancement (bio-fortification) presents major opportunities for benefiting the poor (for example through increasing vitamin and mineral content of staple crops at little or no extra cost to producers and consumers). This is an area where transgenics have the potential to deliver major benefits quickly. It is also an issue with potential for greater public led partnerships offering incentives to private research suppliers.

Public/ private research partnerships also need to be given much greater attention.

Low external input agriculture (LEIA) as widely practiced (but not promoted) is unfortunately often a form of resource mining (where it is associated with higher outputs) or drives people onto marginal lands (where it is associated with low outputs). Either way it can be a major cause of land degradation. Major LEIA successes include IPM (integrated pest management). However basic input/output relations limit its potential to raise yields in many circumstances. Intensification using external inputs must, however, be sensitive to natural resource management issues.

Anita Ingevallbegan by welcoming the attention being given to this issue and stating that she agreed with much of Michael's analysis but not with his conclusions. Food production has generally kept pace with population increases but there are now major challenges of sustainability in both high and low potential areas. These are illustrated by the loss of 75% of crop genetic diversity in the last century, a 5% per annum loss in livestock breeds, and land degradation occurring on 50% of cropped land, with soil loss 13 to 18% faster than soil development.

Agriculture faces major challenges ecologically (for example soil mining, salinisation of irrigated lands, the changes discussed above), economically (with increasing input prices and falling produce prices) and socially (with ageing and declining numbers of people trapped in farming in the north, and rural poverty in the South).
Food production will be a long term problem and this needs intensification - but it must be ecologically, economically and socially sustainable. 
ILEIA was founded around 20 years ago initially to address concerns with the sustainability of green revolution technologies. It has investigated a wide range of options - such as indigenous, organic and permaculture technologies, working mainly with committed practitioners concerned to optimise local resource use. There have been some major successes (for example the organic movement in the North, a variety of smaller success in the South) but these have tended to be scattered and not coherent. The emphasis is on Low External Input Sustainable Agriculture (LEISA). This involves working within natural constraints, adapting to specific sites, feeding soils and recycling in many ways, emphasising micro-climate management, synergy and complementarity, and minimal fossil fuel use.

ILEIA has found that LEISA is feasible and viable, that small farms are more productive than larger farms, and that small farmers are willing to invest - but they need support. Support is needed to enhance their secure access to and control of resources (especially land). Institutions are needed to defend their rights. They also need access to information on strategies and specific technologies. Wider policy support is also crucial. Finally, development involves change on a number of local and wider fronts, and farmers need support in coping with and managing transitions.

A variety of questions were raised in discussion.

Harnessing private sector research: how can this be done more effectively, and are there examples of private sector research in LEISA?

Michael Lipton suggested that more effective harnessing of private sector research required very careful and precise contracts specifying required outputs - and that these needed to be achievable to provide private sector research organizations with profit incentives - but that other incentives to private sector investment can also be important (such as their need to attract top quality researchers and allow them some flexibility to work on interesting and socially important issues). He suggested that organic farming might be a LEISA area which private sector research might have a role. Anita Ingevall stressed the difficulties that common property rights posed for private research investment.

What are the implications of long term challenges of climate change and fossil fuel depletion?

Anita Ingevall pointed out the very inefficient use of fossil fuels in many intensive production systems, and also in food distribution systems. There is a need to adapt to fossil fuel shortages by sourcing local produce. Michael Lipton commented that high energy and transport costs will hit low value products hardest (although transport costs have been falling). This question also meant that in some circumstances investments in roads in Africa needs to be questioned - although there is a serious need for better roads in Africa in some areas it is important to ask what supply and demand the roads will serve.
What should be done about large areas of marginal land being cropped unsustainably (for example in some areas of Southern Africa)?

Michael Lipton commented that there is a need to intensify with better water control and use of inorganic fertilizer where it can be done in sustainable ways with economic benefit - subsidies to intensification in other circumstances are damaging. In some areas of West Africa there are very low returns to fertilizer without higher levels of organic matter in the soil - there is then a need to identify farmer incentives for undertaking costly investments in applying organic matter to the soil - this needs better farmer access to water control, crop germplasm and inorganic fertilizers so that organic matter investments can yield returns to farmers.

Can LEISA benefit from transgenic technologies (for example Bt maize has encouraged conservation tillage and ox-ploughing with reduced tractor ploughing in parts of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa)?

Anita Ingevall responded by noting that some LEIA technologies, such as conservation tillage, have been part of mainstream commercial agriculture - but that these could be pursued without GM. Michael Lipton argued that there was potential for strong complementarity between GM techniques and LEISA - as argued, for example, by Professor Swaminathan, a leading figure in the Asian green revolution.

Is it practical for international research centres to concentrate more on generic yield enhancement issues and to leave more locally specific NRM management and social issues to national research systems when national research systems are often weak?

Michael Lipton agreed that NARS are often weak, because African governments are so stretched as regards public expenditure constraints - and this means that donor investments in this area often allow reductions in governments' own expenditure commitments. There are also very substantial incentive and system problems that prevent highly able and committed staff in NARS from being effective. These systemic problems need to be addressed - capacity building by itself is not enough. Nevertheless there are some very effective NARS in Africa (for example in Kenya)

Can small farmers make more use of the stock of technologies that have already been developed for large, corporate farming?
Both speakers agreed that although there is some potential for this there are also fundamental differences in technology needs between small and large farms, and this limits the extent to which 'on the shelf' technologies for large farms can be adapted to the benefit of small farms. A big advantage of seed and fertilizer technologies is that they are generally divisible (apart from transaction costs of accessing them): this is not the case with many other (for example machinery) technologies.

Can the high costs of obtaining expert knowledge on LEISA be reduced?

The speakers agreed that this is a major challenge. Anita reported that much more information is now available than it was - but it can be difficult to track down and apply.

Can international research centres deliver demand driven research to small farmers or are they too remote, and how can the more locally specific science demands for LEISA be met?

Michael Lipton suggested that paradoxically the international research system had been more effective in promoting participatory research approaches than national and local research systems. Anita Ingevall questioned this. She noted that the development of locally specific technologies required the development of wider strategic solutions and principles.
How quickly could transgenics science come up with solutions to the water challenges posed by Michael?

Michael Lipton agreed that this is a major challenge - very substantial resources will be needed over a long period. He suggested as a very rough estimate that a period of 15 years or so could deliver substantial progress if the whole CG system budget (£300 million per year) were devoted to it. Anita Ingevall suggested that this will never happen, the challenge is too great: plants cannot be pushed to increase their output on two major fronts (moisture stress resistance and high yields). Michael Lipton commented that the long history of plant breeding suggested that net gains in plant performance are possible.

The chair noted the agreement between the speakers on the major challenges to agriculture and poverty reduction and the importance of technology to this, agreement on some responses but differences over others. He thanked the speakers for their informative and stimulating presentations and discussion.


With world population still rising, and the rate of growth of yields of cereal crops falling, there is a strong case for renewed investment in agricultural technology. But what are the priorities and issues? Further intensification using bio-technology? Or do we need technology that may be more suitable to poor people in marginal environments, that makes less demands on external inputs? In either case, how will that technology be developed: through the public sector, private companies or some third way?