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Farmer-led R&D crucial for sustainable food supply

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By Rod Addy+

Last updated the 07-May-2014 at 13:37 GMT

Research by small farm businesses could help boost crop yields
Research by small farm businesses could help boost crop yields

Global agricultural yields are dropping and more farmer-focused research is urgently needed to strengthen sustainable food supply, according to an article published in Nature magazine.

‘Agriculture: engage farmers in research’ , written by Soil Association director of innovation Tom MacMillan and Professor Tim Benton of the UK’s Global Food Security Programme, warned: “Sustainable supply of food hinges on agricultural innovation, but current investments neglect a key area for improving yields.”

The authors said advances from existing research are slowing and “yields have plateaued in some of the world’s most important food-producing regions, including East Asia (for rice) and northwest Europe (for wheat)”. “In some countries, yields have declined,” they stated.

They argue the next wave of innovation “must be at smaller scales”, and “enhancing farmers’ own R&D could reap big rewards for minimal extra cost”.

R&D value £2.36 trillion

The combined value of investment in research & development (R&D) from small farm businesses worldwide could be as much as $4 trillion (£2.36 trillion), the writers estimate.

The article cites the Duchy Originals Future Farming programme, funded by Waitrose via the Prince of Wales Charitable Foundation, as a good example of the research called for.

The scheme helps farmers work with each other and with researchers to produce healthier food in ways that are better for the environment and farm animals.

‘Field labs’

In addition to the research fund, the initiative runs ‘field labs’, bringing a small group of like minded farmers together to solve a problem, adapting an approach pioneered in developing countries.

So far 450 farmers have taken part in field labs covering 20 topics, and there are 30 more planned for 2014. The farms involved range in size from less than 1ha to more than 1,000ha.

Field labs have covered issues such as the control of black grass (a persistent weed that resists herbicides) and the economics of keep­ing hens alive to lay eggs for a second season.

‘Boost farmers’ productivity’

“We believe that field labs could boost farmers’ productivity by supporting low-cost innovations that fly below the radars of large research institutions,” the authors stated.

“When farmers produce knowledge, they are more likely to adopt new practices, and their insights are more likely to be relevant to local conditions …

“The time has come to decentralise, diversify, and enrich agricultural R&D. Farmers – not scientists, outreach workers or salespeople – are the essen­tial players in any agricultural innovation system. Helping them will put food on the world’s tables.”

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