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Gordon Conway

Gordon Conway comments on the new Strategy for Research on Sustainable Agriculture
Gordon Conway comments on the new Strategy for Research on Sustainable Agriculture

Technology adoption: the true measure of success

DFID's Strategy for Research on Sustainable Agriculture (SRSA) was launched by Hilary Benn at DFID in London on Monday 13th March. Gordon Conway is the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Department for International Development. He comments on the new strategy and what can be expected from it.

Why agriculture?

Agricultural growth stimulates economic growth. As a result of the Green Revolution in Asia, increases in agricultural productivity were achieved, the prices of staple foods were reduced, and a platform for economic growth was created. Yet in Africa, where 70 per cent of the population are rural, with livelihoods largely based on agriculture, economic growth has been slow. Unless agricultural productivity can be increased, economic growth and prosperity will not be achieved in Africa. It is as simple as that.

Over the past eleven years, DFID, through its Renewable Natural Resources Research Strategy, has supported a wealth of research that has addressed both practical and social problems in natural resources management. From controlling pests and diseases, to improving crop and livestock production and the management of forests and fisheries, hundreds of technologies have been developed that could really impact on the poor and make a difference to their lives if they were adopted by a greater number of people. It is now time to change the approach and to get a greater number of research technologies into use by making them available to millions of farmers. The new strategy emphasises that new technology is only part of the solution; achieving adoption by farmers is the measure by which it will be deemed truly successful. To get research into use, partnerships will be crucial: between scientists, extension workers and institutions. The role of markets and government policy, however, cannot be over-emphasised.

Policy is key

For agricultural growth to occur, the role of agriculture in a country's development has to be supported by government, and most importantly be championed by the president or prime minister. If agriculture is to be an engine of growth, then resources are needed and the right policies need to be in place. It is difficult to change policy, so it is fundamental that the policies are there right from the beginning and that development in agriculture involves the policymakers. Only then can you begin to work with them so that they understand what is happening in terms of agricultural growth. But you also need the involvement of civil society groups and parliamentarians who will push for policy change. Policy change is not just about policymakers - you need a wide spectrum of stakeholders to bring about effective policy.

Turning up the heat for the future

Climate change, and its impact on agricultural growth will be an important consideration for the future; water resources in particular will be affected. In some countries there will be more rainfall or floods, others will experience less rainfall and drought. There are also likely to be more frequent extreme weather events, more cyclones and hurricanes; some countries, such as Bangladesh, will be particularly vulnerable. These changes will also have great significance for agriculture, including the risk that large areas of coastal agricultural land could be lost to a rise in sea level. I believe that changes are happening already; changes in rainfall patterns are evident and I think poor people are already being affected. It is difficult to prove they are all a consequence of climate change, but all the mathematical models suggest that what is happening to the climate right now is affecting people's lives. So climate change and its impacts on the poor will be an important element of DFID's new research strategy, particularly as the effects of climate change will undoubtedly impact on our strategies to reduce poverty.

Building capacity: a new strategy?

NEPAD, the New Economic Partnership for African Development run by the African Union, has implemented a new programme to strengthen centres of excellence in Africa for sustainable development. We are looking very hard at that new programme. The World Bank also has a new programme focusing on science and technology capacity building. I think it is a pity we were not doing this before but I believe capacity building to support the partnerships needed to take research forward will be very important. For individual farmers, I think that they will begin to see the technologies that have been developed working for them. They will see new varieties of rice, they will see new varieties of wheat or maize. New technologies for controlling individual pests will be made more widely available. And farmers will witness the creation of user associations. Change will not be dramatic. Instead we are likely to see a subtle evolutionary change for individual farmers. But, over the next five years or so, I think that will begin to happen.

Date published: May 2006


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