Monday, November 30, 2015

Research Underpins Agriculture
November 30, 2015
Opinion & Analysis
George Chisoko Senior Assistant Editor
Zimbabwe Herald

Whenever the word agriculture is mentioned, what quickly comes to the minds of many people is simply cropping in terms of the availability of inputs. It denotes only the cultivation of the land for production yet by definition agriculture is very broad and includes cultivation of the land for farming, animal husbandry, research and development. However, for there to be meaningful and profitable agriculture, one that makes the machines of industry turn, impacting positively on capacity utilisation, contributing to the Gross Domestic Product, food security and poverty reduction, greater and conscious emphasis must be placed on agricultural research for the greater good of the economy.

It is what drives agriculture and any slackening in that regard can easily cause serious productivity problems, especially given the threat of climate change. A lot has been written on climate change and further deliberations are taking place in Paris, France so this article will not dwell much on it.

Not many people have given a serious thought to the significant role agricultural research plays in crop and livestock production. Investment in it will always pay dividends while neglecting it is tantamount to abandoning agriculture yet we know that it cannot be wished away because everyone needs food and that food availability is a result of rigorous, purposive, systematic, testable and replicable research work. So governments must make deliberate efforts to seek both financial and human capital to capacitate agricultural research institutions.

Loebenstein and Thottapilly (2007) define agricultural research as any research activity aimed at improving productivity and quality of crops by genetic improvement, better plant protection, irrigation, storage methods, farm mechanisation, efficient markets and better management of resources.

From the definition, it is clear that nations can only pay little attention to their agricultural research institutions at their own peril.

Nations that inject huge amounts of money in research, such as India, have more than reaped the benefits and have become self-sufficient in food production while those that have paid lip service and have at the same time been confronted with the effects of climate change have sadly transformed themselves into perennial food importers.

Yes, agricultural research is the business of governments but the private sector needs to be actively involved through funding and assisting in the transfer of innovations to the farmers. The biggest concern of farmers the world over is having the seed to plant, the fertiliser to apply, the chemicals to spray and in the end the output or production to sell. They are not worried about research. There are some people who should have sleepless nights worrying about this and those are our researchers and scientists.

Agricultural research is not a domain of farmers. But, to a greater extent, it is a matter that should concern them since the new technologies, production techniques and inputs that are made available to them and that increase agricultural production are essentially products of agricultural research. So whatever happens at the research institutions has a direct bearing on their land utilisation.

We note from the above definition that agricultural research, contrary to the belief that it concerns itself much with crop genetic improvement and plant protection, it in fact extends to irrigation, storage methods, bearing in mind that there is increasing concern with post harvest losses, irrigation in light of the threat that climate change poses to rain-fed agriculture, efficient markets and better management of resources. Agricultural research provides a complete package that is essential to economic revival, especially for countries like Zimbabwe which is dependent on agriculture.

Let me draw an analogue of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), a 110-year-old agriculture research institute, to buttress the argument on the significance of research. The IARI conducts research in all spheres of agriculture and knowledge management. India has become self-sufficient in food production largely because of the enormous research work carried at the institute.

India’s wheat production currently stands at 2 million tonnes annually, cotton at 2,2 million tonnes and sugar at 2 million tonnes. It exports 10 million tonnes of rice every year earning $5,5 billion. This has been made possible because of the importance the Government of India attaches to agricultural research that has seen the institute dynamically revising its priorities to focus more on increasing support for advanced research. Our crop production figures pale into embarrassing insignificance when juxtaposed with those of India, however, for varying reasons.

To this end the IARI has established the following in pursuit of advanced research:

1) Centre for Environment Science and Climate Resilient Agriculture

2) Division of Food Science and Post Harvest Technology

3) Centre for Protected Cultivation Technology and Precision Farming

4) Centre for Molecular Breeding

5) State of the art Pesticide Residue Analysis Lab

This has been given impetus by the increasing realisation that agricultural production hinges on research and that neglecting agricultural research is abandoning agriculture. The food self-sufficiency that India boasts of is a function of massive investment in agricultural research.

In Zimbabwe we are not far off from the Indian case study as we also have the Department of Research and Specialist Services (DRSS) under the Ministry of Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development.

This department spearheads all research work in the areas of genetic engineering, plant breeding and plant protection. A lot of new crop varieties that are high yielding, drought and disease tolerant have been produced over the years.

With good rainfall, the right fertiliser application amounts, the correct chemical usage, tillage methods and growing interest in conducting soil analysis to determine the level of alkalinity and acidity of the soil, farmers have been able to produce enough for domestic consumption and a surplus for sale. Soil testing is something our farmers have never taken seriously yet it informs them of the kind of fertiliser to use, the type of crop to grow and the whole crop rotation.

Of course a lot more needs be done, especially now when we are under the unrelenting threat of climate change. New farming technologies need to be developed while new techniques of production have become a necessity. Crop inputs, such as maize, soya beans and wheat to name a few, more than before require serious research work to come up with new varieties that are resilient to climate change.

While the benefits that nations derive from agricultural research are far too many to mention, they cannot be doubted.

The new technologies, the new input varieties and new production techniques easily result in an increase in agricultural productivity and consequently in food security and poverty reduction. This is why governments should seriously be seized with giving priority to agricultural research in their budgets allocation.

Events of Thursday during the Budget presentation were very telling indeed. Agricultural research was allocated money specific to itself. Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa allocated agricultural research $3,2 million to carry out its work. In Africa the question of underfunding of research institutions has always been a matter of great headache.

It must, however, be borne in mind that with a well-funded agricultural research, the size of land holding ceases to matter in production. What matters most becomes the crop yield farmers produce per unit area of land. What research does is to produce high yielding varieties that can withstand the harsh vagaries of the weather given that the necessary inputs are used for production.

Take Brazil for example; tobacco is produced by smallholder farmers on small pieces of land of about 0,5 hectares each yet it produces over 800 million kg of tobacco. It is the yield per unit area that comes into play and not the size of arable land holding.

I am thus very optimistic that with the money allocated to agricultural research, we will begin to see more work being done to benefit the farmers and the country to fight the threat of climate change. It is real and it will be in our best interest to heighten our agricultural research so that we begin to produce materials that will make the negative impact of climate change a little less. We can even have the patented innovations licensed to various companies at nominal fees and that assists in the transfer of innovations to the farmers who are the final users.

Let us therefore put the money to agricultural research and nothing more. No buying spree of vehicles and other luxuries because what lies ahead of us needs us to be committed to issues of productivity and climate change mitigation but obviously we will not be disappointed to see the department recruiting more scientists to do the work.

Carrying out agricultural research is one aspect of the equation as the problem always lies with transferring innovation from the research corridors to the farmer’ fields. Again I refer to the Indian experience of transferring farmer-friendly technologies developed at the IARI to farmers and entrepreneurs through the following innovative approaches.

1) Seed Village and Participatory Seed Production Programmes

2) Operational Research Projects

3) Integrated Area Development Programme

4) Single Window System of Information Dissemination

5) Entrepreneur Development Training

6) Post-office Model for Transfer of Technology

In order to ensure that the technologies are adopted on a wide scale and reach the remotely located farmers, the IARI works through the public private partnership model (PPP). The six extension programmes outlined above ensure that the new innovations get to the farmers for adoption. This has always been a major challenge of agricultural research.

As Zimbabwe, I believe we can always copy the level others have put their agricultural research and technology transfer approaches that have worked in those countries and tailor-make them to suit our situation.

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