Technology can help provide more food but basics must be met
As the effort to improve food-supply productivity continues, technology and innovation are imperatives but scientists warn that smallholders’ basic needs must first be met
By Enggar Paramita
Food security has become everybody’s problem. Government, private companies, research institutes, NGOs and the general public during the two-day AID Forum Food Security Summit: Asia 2014 in Jakarta have shown strong commitment in generating technology that will help to address the issue. Yet having weapons in our hands will mean nothing if we overlook coordination. It is best to join forces, to combine technologies, so we can achieve our mutual goal of food security for the world’s growing population even as existing production systems are threatened by climate change.
Speakers on the panel, ‘Innovations for Increasing Agricultural Productivity and Bio-Conservation’, agreed that applying technology and innovation helps to increase food-supply productivity. The panelists were upbeat about the likelihood of improvements through technology.
Dr James M. Roshetko, senior scientist with the World Agroforestry Centre, moderated the session, emphasizing that it was vital for technology and innovations to be adopted by smallholding farmers as well as large commercial operations. However, there were things that first had to be addressed.
‘We need to ensure that farmers have access to credit and good quality seeds and fertilizer, are able to access markets and know how best to sell their products’, said Dr Roshetko. ‘These might be the most needed technologies for smallholders, which have to come before taking more advanced steps.
‘What is possible is that governments and the private sector should collaborate so that technology can be made available, for example, to groups of farmers, cooperatives or federations’, he added.
The Indonesian Government has made a commitment to ensuring that technology becomes accessible. To accelerate uptake, the Indonesian Agency for Agricultural Research and Development at the Ministry of Agriculture has developed a provincial structure that supports commodity-based and district research centres so the technology produced can be accessed by agricultural extension services, as well as be used to develop information materials for farmers.
Degraded, unproductive land in Indonesia covers around 27 million hectares of mostly acidic soils. To try and address this, the United Nations Development Programme in Indonesia has been adding ‘biochar’—an engineered charcoal—to soils. Biochar works by improving a soil’s physical properties: increasing porosity and the availability of water for plants, neutralizing soil acidity and reducing nutrient leaching. The technology targets the not-so-fertile areas of Indonesia, such as Nusa Tenggara in the drier east of the country. Results have been positive, mostly in improving crop productivity and helping plants adapt to drier periods.
Dr Tantono Subagyo from Crop Life emphasized the use of plant-science technology to increase production. The ‘biotech’ crop technology has been used since 1996 and now has reached 1.6 billion hectares globally. Biotech crops help farmers to grow more food per hectare with species that are resistant to pests and diseases and tolerant of herbicides. According to Dr Subagyo, the safety of biotech crops has been tested and approved by various organizations around the world. In Indonesia, research into biotech crops has been conducted since 1987 and soon variants—such as drought-tolerant sugarcane, insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant maize and stem borer-resistant rice—will be released. But first, promulgation of government regulations is required.
Information on the use of specific seed to combat the weedy rice problem that often decreases yields in Asia was presented during the panel session. Leon Van Mullekom from BASF said that by using technology called the Clearfield System, BASF combined herbicide-tolerant rice seed and herbicide that had excellent rate control. The results have been positive, with lesser costs and higher yields, achieving 7800 kg/ha, which is three times more than usual, and tripling revenue.
Supporting systems, such as irrigation, also play a crucial role in improving productivity. Vallmont uses pivots in ‘fertigation’, which is application of fertilizers through irrigation, and a set of sensors to increase fertilizer efficiency. The system applies nutrients when the crops need them the most, improving soil fertility. The use of GPS data and computer-generated technology has helped to boost the rate of precision of the system.
In the context of Asian agriculture, which is overwhelmingly dominated by smallholders, often cultivating 1 hectare or less, the success of these types of technologies will, as Dr Roshetko emphasized, be contingent upon governments and businesses working closely with smallholders and also first improving the basic technological infrastructure.
This work is linked to the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry