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The US agency for international development (USAID) has launched a new strategy that will help developing country governments draw up science and technology policies to help support their agricultural productivity.

In what appears to be a significant change in its priorities, the agency wants developing countries to place more of an emphasis on science-led innovation and promises to do its bit to help.

This includes assisting governments with science policies that will encourage innovation, public-private partnerships, and more collaborative networks of scientists.

The agency says it will help build new agricultural research institutions, train more scientists from developing countries in the US and support technologies that lead to better yields.

"USAID recognises that the enormous challenge of increasing agricultural productivity and smallholder participation in markets depends on harnessing scientific and technological advances and using new tools – such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, global positioning and geographic information systems – for the business of agriculture," says Emmy Simmons, Assistant Administrator at USAID and the official in charge of agriculture, economic growth and trade.

A particular focus will be on helping women at all levels. Women scientists will be encouraged to link their research to innovation. Women farmers will be provided with opportunities for education, training and better access to agricultural information.

"There is some evidence that men's participation in agriculture is declining, whether due to war, disease or more lucrative income-earning opportunities," says Simmons.

"One third of all rural households in sub-Saharan Africa are now headed by women. In Southeast Asia, 90 per cent of rice cultivation is done by women, yet we know that their access to land, capital and knowledge is consistently less than that of men."

The agency's other priority areas will be to improve the capacity of small farmers to sell their produce, improve their access to information and financial support and help their governments develop policies that provide more opportunities for farmers to make the transition from subsistence to commercial farming.

The strategy also has a considerable environmental component. It will help countries develop renewable energy sources, and provide them with tools to assess the environmental impact of different agricultural policies – a recognition that agriculture continues to be a major cause of biodiversity loss.

The agriculture strategy places recipient countries into three categories: 'transformational development countries', 'fragile states' and 'strategic states'.

Transformational development countries are those furthest on the path to development. In such nations, the USAID programme will focus on promoting policy reforms, providing opportunities for residents to train in US universities, and providing technical assistance and "limited amounts of financial support".

Assistance to 'fragile states', such as Afghanistan and Iraq, will focus on more short-and-medium-term term issues such as providing people with better access to food and increasing agricultural productivity.

Assistance to 'strategic states', such as Pakistan, will also include projects that support broader US foreign policy objectives, such as the 'war on terror'. In the tribal areas of northern Pakistan, for instance, opium poppies are grown, contributing not only to the global drug trade but also a potential source of funding for terrorist activities. Promoting alternative crops for poppy farmers is a priority for Pakistan's government.

The USAID agriculture strategy, called Linking Producers to Markets, was launched in Washington DC last month.

It is part of a joint plan with the Department of State and falls under the US government's 'National Security Strategy', which aims to invest in democracy and transparent governance, free trade and innovation in poor countries.

The strategy states that "accountable governments, political and economic freedoms, investing in people and respect for individuals begets prosperity, healthy and educated populations and political stability".

Click here to download Linking Producers to Markets