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Emerging Technologies to Benefit Farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia 1 Introduction AGRICULTURE AND POVERTY Nearly 75 percent of the people who live in dire poverty (earning less than US$1 per day) in the developing world live in rural environments and rely on agriculture as their major source of food and income (Pingali et al., 2006; World Bank, 2007). In its 2006 report The State of Food Insecurity in the World, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) provides extensive data on the distribution of undernourished people in the world and the prevalence of undernourishment in many parts of the developing world (Figure 1-1). It may be surprising to many that the number in India alone surpasses the total in all of sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).1 Among all the regions that struggle with undernourishment, only SSA continues to show a decline in food security and agricultural productivity per capita (FAO, 2006). Because so many of the world’s poor live in rural agricultural areas, their food security, income, and employment depend on successful food production. The World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Development (World Bank, 2007) highlights the need to invest in agriculture in developing countries to reduce hunger and poverty, and the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development report (IAASTD, 2008) assesses agricultural knowledge and the role of science and technology for food and livelihood security. Recognizing the links between poverty, hunger, poor nutrition, health, and agriculture, the Bill & Melinda 1 South Africa is included in sub-Saharan Africa.
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Emerging Technologies to Benefit Farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia FIGURE 1-1 Distribution of undernourished people. SOURCE: FAO, 2006. Reprinted with permission. © 2006 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Gates Foundation recently launched programs to improve agricultural productivity. The foundation’s Agricultural Development initiative synergizes strongly with the foundation’s global activities in other areas and brings new attention to a neglected segment of the social and economic structure of developing countries. Focusing on two areas where rural poverty and hunger are most prevalent—SSA and South Asia (SA)2—the foundation is supporting scientific research and the dissemination of technologies to improve crops, enhance soil fertility, increase the efficiency of water use, improve agricultural data, and promote market development. As one of its guiding principles, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has stated that “science and technology have great potential to improve lives 2 South Asia is defined as including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Maldives, Bhutan, and Nepal; however, this report is much more heavily focused on agriculture as practiced in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh because of their large populations.
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Emerging Technologies to Benefit Farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia around the world.” Historically, innovations arising from research have mainly benefited agricultural systems in industrialized countries. In 2004, the output of U.S. agriculture was 167 percent higher than in 1948. This gain in productivity can be attributed almost entirely to greater resource efficiency and, in particular, to technological advances in crops, animals, and farming systems that are the results of substantial investment in public and private agricultural research over several decades. In contrast, in SSA, where support for agricultural research and development has declined in the last 20 years, most farmers produce barely enough food for subsistence and suffer from fluctuations of yield that often result in food shortage, a loss of income, and degradation of the local environment as farmers seek to cultivate marginal and sensitive lands. The exception is seen in South Africa, Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe with large-scale commercial farms where good soil, adequate rainfall, and the use of mechanized agriculture and advanced technologies have resulted in yields similar to those in the industrialized world. However, it remains true that the vast majority of farmers in SSA are small-scale subsistence farmers. Given the historical success in applying science and technology to overcome agricultural constraints in the industrialized nations, it seems probable that identifying applications that address the needs of farmers in SSA and SA can also result in gains in crop and animal productivity. Existing knowledge and tools have a great deal to offer to farmers in the developing world, if they can be adapted and implemented. THE SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY OF TOMORROW Rapid advances are occurring at the cutting edge of plant, animal, and microbial sciences, propelled by the synchrony of molecular techniques with high-throughput chemistry and advances in engineering, miniaturization, and informatics. Dissecting the complexity of plant and animal traits and microbial communities is getting faster, easier, and more powerful because each revelation of nature’s functions brings with it the potential to make those functions operate as technological tools for further exploring and manipulating biological systems. The ability to harness nature for mankind’s needs has never been greater. Beyond the fields traditionally associated with agriculture, advances in physics, chemistry, electrical engineering, materials science, remote sensing, and computer science are increasingly recognized as sources of novel ideas with implications for agriculture. One can imagine using innovations from those disciplines to develop tools for understanding and controlling the agricultural environment better and for managing soil, water, crop, and energy resources. Applications based on the new technologies may not yet
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Emerging Technologies to Benefit Farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia exist, but the scientific foundations that will enable them in the future are steadily being built. A STUDY OF EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s interest in those scientific advances led it to approach the National Research Council (NRC) for a study of emerging technologies that could benefit farmers in SSA and SA. Although it is probably safe to assume that research in the scientific fields mentioned above will move forward and eventually lead to agricultural applications in the industrialized world, it will take a concerted effort to direct the development of novel technologies (and investment in them) toward the specific needs of the world’s poorest. The foundation requested the study to inform its long-term planning, advocacy, and partnerships for agricultural research support and to assess technologies that could be developed over the next 20 years to transform farmers in SSA and SA into successful agricultural producers. With that goal in mind, the NRC appointed a committee of experts with knowledge of the constraints facing farmers in SSA and SA and of the newest advances in the agricultural sciences to conduct a study of promising innovations for agriculture. The committee was tasked with identifying emerging technologies, a term that captured two types of innovations: (1) applications that currently exist but have not been widely used or adapted in SA and SSA, and (2) innovations in the conceptual or developmental stages that hold promise for improving agriculture. A second charge to the committee was to develop a framework for prioritizing technologies most likely to transform the lives of farmers in these regions. Because the foundation was interested in having a study that looked over the horizon to what might be possible in the future, the study committee focused primarily on the technologies themselves and their potential application to address relevant agricultural constraints or opportunities in SSA and SA but not on the complex socioeconomic environments into which they might someday be introduced. The study committee was acutely aware of the influence of the many factors in developing countries that can make a technology more or less practical; however, it was advised not to limit its thinking to what might be implementable under today’s conditions but rather to think about what is possible for the future 15 to 20 years away. This report is the result of the committee’s exploration of scientific frontiers and of numerous technologies, applications, and research topics. The statement of task for the study is found in Appendix A, and biographical information on the committee members is contained in Appendix B.
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Emerging Technologies to Benefit Farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia STUDY APPROACH The committee approached its task from several angles. Its first approach was to ask scientists in research institutions in SSA and SA to identify the three most acute constraints facing farmers that if overcome could transform their production capabilities. In general, scientists in the two regions produced remarkably similar lists of problems and issues, which are listed in Box 1-1 and roughly ordered according to how often they were mentioned by the local scientists. Appendix C contains the names of scientists from SSA and SA who provided input to the study. The same issues arose at a meeting of the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa attended by two committee members, who led a discussion with scientists at that gathering. Early in the study, the committee organized a meeting asking experts to envision and describe what the environment in the two regions might look like in the future and what resources and challenges would exist. A mix of technological innovators participated in the visioning exercise and BOX 1-1 The Most Serious Agricultural Constraints in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia: Perspectives from Scientists in Those Regions Soil fertility, lack of fertilizer, and soil degradation Drought, insufficient water, and difficulties in managing water Animal nutrition, diseases, and arthropod vectors Insufficient markets and international regulation Weak government and institutions and finance for small farmers Germplasm of plants and animals Education of farmers, extension, and information systems Need for biotechnology and other new technologies to increase productivity Parasitic weeds, plant diseases, and arthropod pests Lack of infrastructure and manpower Energy and mechanization for small farmers Climate change and related problems Information and resources for local scientists Postharvesting technologies Population growth SOURCE: Appendix C.
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Emerging Technologies to Benefit Farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia in a brainstorming session that allowed each of them to explore how the frontiers in different fields of science might offer tools that could be used for agriculture. Finally, the committee held a series of information-gathering meetings at which experts described the state of research on specific agricultural problems and novel ways to address them. The scientists who participated in these sessions are listed in Appendix D. ORGANIZATION OF THE REPORT Given that some of the technologies explored by the committee are in the early stages of development, the study’s focus is on a point far upstream from the point of delivery to the farmer, where the existence of supporting infrastructure (physical, institutional, and human resources) and other practical considerations will be key determinants for the success or failure of an innovation. Some of those factors are acknowledged in Chapter 2 with a description of the key agricultural constraints, problems, and opportunities that serve as the context for exploring novel technological approaches. Chapter 3 outlines considerations for plant breeding programs and describes the powerful new knowledge and capabilities emerging at the interface of plant science, genomics, and biotechnology. Chapters 4 and 5 examine technological possibilities for improving and conserving water and soil, respectively, as the cornerstones of agricultural productivity. Chapter 6 explores technologies to improve and protect animals, an increasingly important sector of agriculture in SSA and SA. Chapter 7 identifies innovations in off-grid energy production that could help to boost agricultural productivity and rural development. In Chapter 8, the committee presents its key findings, describes several ideas for increasing the capacity of agricultural research in the two regions, and highlights several technologies that merit high priority for further exploration on the basis of qualities such as time frame and breadth of impact. The technologies described in this report range from those that are years from being turned into useful tools to those that are in hand but have not been applied to agricultural problems in the two regions. Some of the ideas may be carried forward for more detailed examination in a future NRC study. REFERENCES FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). 2006. The State of Food Security in the World, 2006. Rome: FAO, UN. IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development). 2008. International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development. Available online at http://www.agassessment.org/ [accessed June 20, 2008].
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Emerging Technologies to Benefit Farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia Pingali, P., K. Stamoulis, and R. Stringer. 2006. Eradicating extreme poverty and hunger: Toward a coherent policy agenda. Rome, Italy: Agricultural and Development Economics Division, FAO. Available online at ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/008/af839e/af839e00.pdf [accessed February 22, 2008]. World Bank. 2007. World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Development. Washington, DC: The World Bank.
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