Q&A: Science is still biased towards staple crops

Info Lady Mahfuza answers farmer Nojrul Islam's question
Info Lady Mahfuza answers farmer Nojrul Islam's question by showing him an advice video on her laptop. In rural Bangladesh the Info Ladies are bringing internet services to men and women who need info Copyright: Panos

Speed read

  • As climate change forces farmers to change crops, science needs to follow suit
  • Technology helps distribute information, but cannot solve structural problems alone
  • Private companies need extra support to trade with smallholders

Send to a friend

The details you provide on this page will not be used to send unsolicited email, and will not be sold to a 3rd party. See privacy policy.

This article was supported by The Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center.

This year’s world food security report found world hunger rising for the third year in a row. The report cited climate change and conflict as the most important drivers behind this trend.
Paul Winters, associate vice-president of the Strategy and Knowledge Department at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), says hunger remains a moving target for those trying to tackle it. IFAD is one of the UN agencies behind the report, The agency aims to boost income and livelihoods for farmers in poor rural households.
In this interview, part of our Bellagio Residency 2018 series, Winters tells SciDev.Net how technology features in IFAD’s work—and why simply rolling out technological tools isn’t enough to transform the poorest areas.

What does IFAD see as crucial spending areas for science and technology?

One of the main fields is climate change. The latest UN Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change’s special report shows that things are more dire than we had anticipated. The group that's going to be most affected by climate change are poor farmers. How can we use technology to address that? Part of that is developing better crop varieties that deal with droughts, floods and changing conditions. But a lot of it is about digital technology—getting information.

“One of the things we found is that in science there's still a bias towards staple crops, even though countries are utilising a broader crop base.”

Paul Winters, IFAD

The IPCC said we need to have more knowledge about micro-level impacts. We have a lot of tested models of resource management that allow farmers to adapt to climate change. The problem, though, is that conditions are going to be changing [due to climate change], and so it's hard to know for sure whether the actions we're taking will be appropriate for a new context. We need to keep experimenting.

Where have you seen the context change?

We did an impact evaluation of an irrigation and rehabilitation system used in three regions in the Philippines, and we found that two of the areas did pretty well: we saw increased rice yields, increased market access, increased income. But in one of the areas we didn't find anything positive. This was an area that was hit by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. We hadn't factored in this kind of high-risk event. It wasn't that the tsunami destroyed the irrigation system, but it destroyed the collective management of it, as people had to deal with other issues.
That's the kind of thing we need to start building into projects: to not just think in terms of the technology, but the risks associated with it. And how to respond if there's a climate event.

What technologies are you investing in?

Traditionally, there's been a lot of work on staple crops; rice, wheat, corn, potatoes, and so on. IFAD has moved away from that, and more towards high-value crops like coffee and cocoa. One of the things we found is that in science there's still a bias towards staple crops, even though countries are utilising a broader crop base. We need to pay more attention to other crops that have more potential value for poor farmers.

In your efforts to push high-value crops, what obstacles are you finding?

One very tangible example is Ethiopia: again it was an irrigation project that aimed to empower farmers in designing and maintaining irrigation systems. It worked very well—they changed their cash crops to agricultural crops with high-market value. But we didn't plan well enough for the post-harvest stage and where the farmers would sell those crops. Now we are doing a new project there, which is a combination of trying to work with the private sector to facilitate information on where markets are, and how farmers can sell there collectively. 

What incentives do you think people need to get organised?

When there's income to be earned, the farmers are usually happy to organise. The biggest limitation is the private sector. If I set up a factory to process food items, but the weather is bad and my suppliers get hurt, then I suddenly don’t have any supply chain to draw from. So, it's always high-risk for industry to get involved. One of the things we're working on is trying to find some ways of de-risking investments.

“But poor farmers face constraints that require additional action to make sure that the transformation of these rural areas is inclusive.”

Paul Winters, IFAD

The other challenge with the private sector is that it's very hard to deal with many smallholders individually. I once interviewed the buyer for Frito-Lay potatoes, and he told me he would be happy to buy potatoes from smallholders, but he did not want to deal with 1,000 of them. The transaction costs were just too high. Companies need potatoes at a certain time to meet production needs, and they need a certain quality. The private sector can be quite receptive, but they need to make money, and you have to work with them to try to overcome risks and costs.

Have you seen an example of real change from a technological intervention?

If you put technologies out there, the farmers in the best position to take advantage of them are the ones that are better off. A lot of what I've been mentioning has to do with how you get technology to smallholders, and how you get the poor farmers to participate.

The success stories are around storage facilities—there's a famous one in northern India, in which the government provided subsidies to stimulate the take-off of cold storage for potatoes. They ended up with farmers getting substantial income gains. Another great example, also from India, involves information and communication technologies. Fishers would use their cell phones and go to the market where prices were best, based on real-time information.
These are examples where technology has been critical for improvement. But poor farmers face constraints that require additional action to make sure that the transformation of these rural areas is inclusive. It won't happen automatically—it has to be made to happen.

This article was supported by The Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center. For nearly 60 years the Bellagio Center has supported individuals working to improve the lives of poor and vulnerable people globally through its conference and residency programs, and has served as a catalyst for transformative ideas, initiatives, and collaborations.

From November 5 – December 3, 2018, the Bellagio Center hosted a special thematic residency on Science for Development, with a cohort of up to 15 scholars, practitioners, and artists whose work is advancing, informing, communicating, or is inspired by the use or design of science and technology to address social and environmental challenges around the world.