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Makida Mohammed is a farmer near Assela in Ethiopia’s Oromia region, where grains such as wheat, barley and tef dominate the landscape. Wheat is Mohammed’s main cash crop. In Ethiopia, wheat production by smallholder farmers such as Mohammed accounts for more than 70 per cent of domestic production.  The cash Mohammed makes from selling wheat goes to feed, clothe and educate her five children.
I met Mohammed through my work with the Cornell Alliance for Science, an organisation based at Cornell University in the United States that aims to improve access to scientific innovation through better communication. The alliance are co-organising an online debate with SciDev.Net on Tuesday, 9 June. This debate will explore why farmers around the world tend to be slow to adopt agricultural innovations. An offline debate, on 10 June, held at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea, will explore the role journalists play in disseminating information about innovations.
Mohammed’s story shows how much difference technology can make to the lives of farmers, but also how difficult it is for them to implement innovations.
Mohammed is now considered a prosperous farmer in her village. But it wasn’t always that way. When her husband died, the cultural norm was for Mohammed to marry his brother. But she refused “because I would have lost my farm to him”, she says.
Instead, Mohammed chose to tough it out on the land, supporting her young children with the help of her husband’s first wife. Since taking over the farm that she used to work on with her husband, Mohammed has been able to send all her children to school.
“At first my fellow farmers made fun of me, but then they saw my successes.”
Makida Mohammed, farmer, Assela in Ethiopia
Through hard work, Mohammed managed to boost farm productivity to 2.6 tonnes of wheat a hectare. But life remained precarious. “In 2010, because of yellow rust, I didn’t get anything,” Mohammed says.
Rust, a parasitic fungus, is the bane of farmers around the world. Infections are difficult to deal with as the fungus’s spores are carried long distances by the wind.
Seeds of success
Following the devastating infection, Mohammed decided to switch to a rust-resistant wheat variety provided by Bedada Girma, a scientist at the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR). Now her yield has once again improved.
Mohammed was one of the first in her country to seek out and adopt new rust-resistant varieties of wheat from EIAR, and implement progressive agricultural practices. But it was difficult for her to change her approach to farming.
There are few sources of information about alternative practices in Mohammed’s area, and many people in her community were reluctant to accept her decisions.
“At first my fellow farmers made fun of me,” she says. “But then they saw my successes.”
The villagers formed cooperatives to produce their own improved seed and Mohammed stepped into a leadership role as an early adopter of technology — a role she retains. She now owns a mobile phone that she uses to check market prices and the availability of grain stock.
Developing nations are full of potential agricultural leaders such as Mohammed: smallholder farmers willing to try different approaches to improve their farms. Many, however, face social, economic and logistical barriers that make it difficult to access improved seed, agricultural tools and information technologies. Here, improvements in communication and information sharing can play a crucial role in helping them access agricultural technology and expertise.
Farmers such as Mohammed inspired our team at Cornell to build the Alliance for Science, which was awarded a US$5-million grant in August last year. We strive to share the stories and experiences of farmers globally, who, with access to scientific innovation, have the potential to ensure their own food security, improve the environment and raise the quality of life for their families and their communities.
Next week — as part of the event taking place on 10 June at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea — the Alliance for Science will work with SciDev.Net to foster a global conversation on the critical role journalists play in shaping the degree to which farmers have access to agricultural innovations.
With the world’s population growing and its climate changing, it is becoming increasingly critical to find ways to overcome information barriers, which obstruct the adoption of farming innovations. In a study in Tanzania, for example, it was estimated that households would enjoy, on average, an 18 per cent better chance of achieving food security by growing improved varieties of maize. 
“We want journalists to use the alliance as a resource to identify the researchers who develop new technologies, and the farmers who adopt them.”
Sarah Davidson Evanega, Alliance for Science project
Studies from Senegal and other countries in Central and West Africa have shown that the introduction and adoption of new maize varieties have contributed to decreasing poverty since the 1970s, when modern varieties made up only five per cent of those planted, compared with 60 per cent in 2005. 
Yet, in Ethiopia, 30 per cent of wheat producers are still not benefiting from modern wheat varieties — and that is mostly due to a lack of information and access to seed.  And even adopters, such as Mohammed, could further improve their yields and household security if they could access information about improved agronomic practices.
In light of what we know about the impact of access to and adoption of modern agricultural technology, what can journalists do to inform and educate people about technology options and the implications of farmers’ choices?
Spreading the word
One important role for journalists is to relay information on new technologies and the service providers that can help farmers access such innovations. The media can also spread the word on training classes, which offer opportunities for learning by doing. All of this improves the connection between farmers and research, and improves the likelihood of success.
The traditional systems that provide such support in poorer countries, including adult learning centres, government agencies and applied research centres, are often poorly funded and sometimes dysfunctional. Researchers exploring the uptake of innovation have suggested that new communication tools — and non-traditional communicators — could supplement limited resources for outreach.Ensuring access to agricultural innovation is also essential in an erratic world climate, where prolonged droughts, delayed monsoons, severe storms and temperature extremes severely challenge farmers. How can journalists spread the message about the technological advances being developed in response?
And what about the other side of the coin? Journalists, especially in countries where access to media is limited and freedom of speech is restricted, can hinder the dissemination of information. If they do their job badly, whether because of lack of training or limited press freedom, journalists can obstruct information flow. What can be done to avoid such problems?
The Alliance for Science wants to help journalists tell the stories of risk-taking farmers such as Mohammed who have seen agricultural innovation improve lives. We want journalists to use the alliance as a resource to identify the researchers who develop new technologies, and the farmers who adopt them.
Sarah Davidson Evanega directs the Alliance for Science project.
The SciDev.Net online debate will take place on 9 June starting at 1pm British Summer Time (GMT+1).