The winning combination for scaling up sustainable intensification in farming

sign-malawiAround the world, farmers are conservative by nature, and with very good reason. A rich farmer who makes a serious mistake risks losing his farm to the bank. A smallholder risks much worse: famine for her children. Anyone hoping to change farmers’ practices thus better have compelling stories to tell. How this can be done is the key question anyone interested in scaling up sustainable intensification technologies must address.

The value of these technologies is not in doubt. Research presented at the Beating Famine conference painted a glowing picture of how effective they can be. Hybrid seeds, intercropping with legumes, crop rotations and conservation agriculture are all proven intensification techniques. The financial returns of combining all three practices are impressive: net income per hectare more than doubles, both because of higher yields and lower spending on pesticides and herbicides. Nutritional profiles improve. Combining those technologies also substantially lessens farmers’ exposure to risks such as crop failure.

And yet, few farmers use all these measures.

Take Malawi. Its fertiliser subsidy makes it an ideal proving ground for the impact of these techniques. Researchers found that almost two-third of farmers plant hybrid maize seeds, and over a third also use crop rotation or legume intercropping. Great news, right? Sadly not: less than one farmer out of twenty combines all three of these measures. So, despite the huge cost of its fertiliser subsidy, Malawian farmers barely achieve yields of 1.7 tonnes of maize per hectare. When catastrophe strikes, as it did this year, famine is a real risk.

Conservation Agriculture is another key technology. CA is extraordinarily effective at reducing soil loss and water run-off (from over 8% to less than 0.7%). Soil moisture consistently increases under residue cover. There is strong  link between higher residue cover and higher yields.

So why, despite the obvious benefits, do so few farmers adopt all three technologies? How can we encourage farmers to adopt this package of measures?

The answer, as so often, lies in the details. Conservation Agriculture, for example, is not always a good idea: in waterlogged terrain, crop residues will reduce yields. They will also reduce yields in plots where the maize leaf disease is rampant.

Dr Mulugetta Mekuria of CIMMYT Southern Africa speaks at conference session

Dr Mulugetta Mekuria of CIMMYT Southern Africa speaks at conference session

Another issue is the difficulty of effective scaling up efforts.

Scaling up is a function of two numbers: the number of farmers reached, and the number of farmers who adopt the new practice. Reaching large numbers quickly is relatively easy and comparatively cheap— just think of radio or mobile phones—but getting lasting impact is far more difficult.

Extension and participatory measures such as demonstrations are critical tools to explain complex technologies. They are also expensive, requiring large inputs of trained labour. Public private partnerships for the distribution of seeds and information can help lessen these costs. So, especially, can joining forces to share extension and demonstration efforts. But while this is widely recognised, it rarely translates into joined-up efforts. Governement departments, donors, projects and NGOs often work with little coordination.

That is where the potential of Agricultural Innovation Platforms come in. These networks are proven to be excellent bodies to coordinate these efforts.

Finally, policymakers are faced with tight budgets and large demands. How can they best allocate their money? Is investing in extension a better deal that straightforward fertiliser subsides? To find out, a team from CIMMYT ran models on four countries with contrasting policies.

Ethiopia has invested aggressively in extension. The country now has 16 extension workers per 10,000 farmers, in line with the international average. In Malawi, fertiliser subsidies rule the roost. Kenya has the most liberalised agriculture sector, while Tanzania has the lowest extension-to-farmer ratio of the four. Ethiopia and Malawi already have the highest rate of residue and minimum tillage usage. CIMMYT’s model, which answered a lot of “what if…?” questions related to increasing or decreasing both budgets in all four countries, highlights the important role both play in helping spread access to conservation agriculture. But, perhaps surprisingly, they concluded that subsidies come out marginally ahead. They make the expensive inputs that are essential for effective conservation agriculture affordable.

Ultimately, easy credit, affordable inputs and impactful, appropriate information is the winning combination.

Blog by Patrick Worms, Senior Science Policy Adviser with ICRAF

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