Agricultural research needs to get out of the lab and into the field.
That’s the takeaway point from my recent attendance at a conference in Ethiopia.
Sponsored by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, the gathering had a long title: the FAO Regional Meeting on Agricultural Biotechnologies in Sustainable Food Systems and Nutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Its purpose was to discuss how to bring new technologies to smallholder farmers like me, so that we can produce more food in sustainable ways as we confront the challenge of climate change.
As a farmer from Zimbabwe, I was keenly interested in the subject. I’m always trying to grow more snap peas, corn, rice, sorghum, and gum trees.
I’d also dreamed of visiting the African Union’s conference center in Addis Ababa. This is where the most influential leaders on my continent gather to discuss policy. It was an honor to sit in the same seats that heads of state sit in when they conduct diplomacy.
The presidents and prime ministers weren’t there, of course. Instead, my meeting involved academic researchers, government bureaucrats, and representatives from NGOs. The organizers made a good effort to attract a diverse group.
Yet there weren’t many farmers. This struck me as odd: For a conference that was supposedly about what we do, we might have enjoyed a larger presence on the panels and in the audience.
Much of the conversation was academic. My favorite session examined post-harvest biotechnology. Its conversations were less scientific and based on real-life examples of how small-scale farmers can use the latest methods to get the most out of their yields. In another forum, I was interested to hear about controlling the molds that generate harmful aflatoxins in ground nuts.
For the most part, however, I observed a troubling disconnection between people whose jobs require them to talk about agriculture and those of us who actually farm.
It reminds me of something Norman Borlaug once said. In what were reportedly among his final words, the father of the Green Revolution called on his successors to “take it to the farmers.” What he meant, I think, is that researchers, regulators, and activists must get out of their labs and offices and put themselves in direct contact with the folks who work the land.
Only then will we be able to collaborate and feed the world.
In sub-Saharan Africa, we aren’t doing enough to feed ourselves. Our populations are growing, but we’re not keeping up with the booming levels of agricultural production in other countries.
There are many reasons for this, from political instability to poor infrastructure. We also don’t enjoy access to the same technologies that farmers elsewhere take for granted. We can’t defeat weeds or combat pests with the latest innovations, often because our governments take their cues from Europe and refuse to permit the commercialization of GMOs.
In an era that requires running just to stand still, we keep falling behind.
Perhaps before anybody can “take it to the farmers,” we farmers should take our views to the conference halls.
Then we might learn about the amazing breakthroughs in biotechnology—and come to gain a better appreciation for what science can do for us. Like how Bt maize can help control Fall Armyworm which, for the past two years, has invaded our farms in Zimbabwe and across Africa, ruining harvests. We can’t exactly lobby our governments for technologies we don’t know about.
We also can’t encourage the public-private partnerships that are essential to progress. The public sector currently drives too much agricultural research. Only with the active involvement of the private sector will farmers be able to explain what they need—and then get it.
One solution is for more farmers to join me in attending events such as the FAO’s regional conference. My invitation came because of my involvement with the Global Farmer Network, which tries to connect farmers with researchers and policymakers.
So perhaps farmers should seek more of these invitations. When we receive them, we should make a point of going and participating. We should soak up what we learn as well as share our views.
Then we can go back to our farms and do what we’re supposed to do: Grow the food that we all need.