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close this book2020 Vision Focus 4 - Promoting Sustainable Development in Less-Favored Areas (IFPRI, 2000, 18 p.)
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View the documentBrief 1 of 9 - November 2000 - Overview
View the documentBrief 2 of 9 - November 2000 - Technologies for the East African Highlands
View the documentBrief 3 of 9 - November 2000 - Technologies for the Tropical Andes
View the documentBrief 4 of 9 - November 2000 - Technologies for the Southeast Asian Uplands
View the documentBrief 5 of 9 - November 2000 - Returns to Public Investment: Evidence from India and China
View the documentBrief 6 of 9 - November 2000 - Development Strategies for Semiarid South Asia
View the documentBrief 7 of 9 - November 2000 - Development Strategies for the East African Highlands
View the documentBrief 8 of 9 - November 2000 - Development Strategies for West Africa
View the documentBrief 9 of 9 - November 2000 - The Role of Agricultural Science

Brief 9 of 9 - November 2000 - The Role of Agricultural Science

Shawki Barghouti and Peter Hazell

Shawki Barghouti is research adviser in the Rural Development Department at the World Bank, and Peter Hazell is director of the Environment and Production Technology Division at IFPRI.

Many agricultural policymakers and researchers are skeptical about the efficacy of investing in agricultural research for less-favored areas. Growing conditions are very diverse and often marginal and risky, so that improved technologies may (1) lead to low productivity payoffs on average, (2) not be attractive to farmers because of the risk of input loss in bad years, and (3) may not have widespread application (in contrast to the Green Revolution technologies that spread over tens of millions of hectares of land). Technologies are also perceived to be more difficult and perhaps more costly to develop. There is undoubtedly some basis for these concerns, especially for commodity improvement research, but as shown for India, agricultural research can have significant productivity impacts and reduce poverty in some types of less-favored areas. Research and development (R&D) for less-favored areas needs to respond to these concerns in realistic ways.


It is important to know the biophysical potentials for increasing land productivity in different kinds of less-favored areas. If they are not much larger than the levels that farmers are currently achieving, then R&D is unlikely to be helpful. Many less-favored areas have enough sunshine and average annual rainfall to sustain good yields but lack adequate soil nutrients and the means to capture and store the available rain until it is most needed. Theoretical plant modeling studies show, for example, that yields of rainfed grain crops in semiarid tropical areas of West Africa could be doubled or tripled if plant nutrients, especially phosphate, were adequate and seasonal soil moisture constraints were overcome. Likewise, experimental trials based on increasing key plant nutrients (such as combining rock phosphate applications with improved fallows planted to leguminous trees or cover crops) and water catchment at the landscape levels suggest that land productivity can be increased by 100-200 percent in some less-favored environments. Plant-breeding work for greater tolerance to stresses like drought, salt, and acidity also suggests that significant yield increases are possible, even under existing plant nutrient and soil moisture regimes. In Brazil, liming and no-till farming has converted poor and acidic cerado soils into some of the most productive agricultural lands in the country. These results suggest that most less-favored areas have considerable biophysical potential for achieving much higher yields. The real challenge is to find profitable and environmentally sustainable ways to tap these yield potentials.

R&D alone cannot meet the challenges of less-favored areas. The task also requires enabling policies and local institutions, as well as public investments in rural infrastructure and the health and education of local people. These issues are discussed in accompanying briefs. We focus here on guidelines for appropriate R&D strategies for less-favored areas.


· Plant breeding. Plant breeding to develop improved varieties for less-favored areas is vital to achieving higher yields (such as food and cash crop varieties that are more tolerant of drought and poor soil conditions and that have greater pest and disease resistance). Conventional plant-breeding methods can make an important contribution, but biotechnology may be able to open up new opportunities for breeding as well as shorten the time it takes to develop better varieties.

· Improved natural resource management. There is a growing consensus that any major productivity improvements will first require improved natural resource management practices and technologies, especially for water catchment and soil fertility. These have the potential to increase yields with existing crop varieties. They will also create more favorable environments to enhance the payoff from developing improved crop varieties. The types of improvements needed in natural resource management will vary widely according to the most limiting factor of production, across agroecological conditions, and according to other social and economic factors.

· Solutions to large-scale problems. Given the huge diversity in local conditions, R&D on natural resource management problems should focus on those problems that are common to a significant number of poor people, and only on those that can be scaled up from benchmark sites. The scaling up need not mean that all sites have to be homogeneous, just that improved natural resource management practices can be easily and cost-effectively adapted by local people and institutions to different site-specific circumstances.

· Low-external-input technologies. Because many less-favored areas have poor infrastructure and market access, it is uneconomic for farmers to use high levels of external inputs. But low-external-input technologies are typically labor intensive, both seasonally and in total, and this can be an important constraint on their uptake. Fallows and green manures also keep land out of crop production, and composting and manuring compete for household energy use and are difficult for many small farms. The challenge is to develop low-external-input technologies that boost labor and land productivity.

· Diversification. While improved technologies for food crops for subsistence and local needs are often much needed in the poorer less-favored areas, sustained increases in per capita incomes will depend on diversification into higher-value agricultural products such as livestock and horticultural products and nonfarm activities such as agricultural processing.

· Property rights and collective action. Past R&D attempts in less-favored areas point to the importance of social and institutional factors, particularly indigenous property rights systems and the local capacity for organizing and sustaining collective action for managing natural resources. Some of the most successful agricultural technologies have avoided these problems (such as the high-yielding cereal varieties of the Green Revolution) because they could be captured within a single agricultural season and hence did not require secure property rights. Nor did they require collective action; individual farmers could adopt regardless of what their neighbors decided to do. These features made adoption decisions relatively simple and help explain why high-yielding varieties are able to spread quickly and widely in diverse socioeconomic situations. But where research agendas must focus on the sustainable use of natural resources, local institutional issues become much more prominent. For example, planting of farm trees is a long-term investment that requires secure property rights, though not necessarily collective action. Many other technologies for improved natural resource management require both secure property rights and effective collective action. Watershed development, for example, requires secure property rights because it involves long-term investments that can be successfully made only if the entire community living within the relevant landscape is mobilized to support collective action. If these institutional conditions are not met, then the technology is not likely to be adopted and maintained, regardless of its profitability and scientific soundness.

· Indigenous knowledge. Much of the R&D needed for less-favored lands does not involve high science but rather the spread and adaptation of indigenous knowledge and practical innovations. Some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have been very successful in pursuing this agenda and in working with local communities to overcome social and institutional constraints. There are serious questions about whether many of these successes can be scaled up and sustained over time at reasonable cost. Nevertheless, formal R&D institutions need to better integrate their own products into the broader portfolio of technology options available to farmers.

· Participatory approaches. There is a need for more participatory approaches to developing research agendas and testing new technologies if they are to be relevant and adopted, especially by the poor. Given that researchers must work on scaled-up problems to achieve impact beyond specific sites, then a research focus on representative benchmark communities can be a useful approach.


The challenges facing R&D for less-favored areas are great. These areas are much more diverse than many high-potential areas. Sustainable development in less-favored areas involves changes in complex natural resource management systems that have been developed over generations to cope with uncertain rainfall and weather conditions, poorer and often more fragile soils, and the high costs of external inputs given poor market access.

To meet these challenges, agricultural research and extension systems must adopt a more client-oriented, problem-solving approach for all types of technologies and agricultural conditions. This approach will often require more on-farm research under conditions that are difficult and diverse and are likely to be much different from research stations. Not all of the technological challenges facing poor people will be solved by more on-farm work; biotechnology conducted in a strict laboratory environment may be critical, for example, in raising yield ceilings or improving drought tolerance. However, even biotechnology will be more effective if it addresses priorities set on the basis of a client-oriented, problem-solving approach that draws many, of its insights from interaction with farmers.

Institutional reforms are necessary to change incentive structures within public research and extension systems, so that scientists and extension officers are more responsive to the needs of their clients. But to be effective, these changes will need to extend to all levels of management. The kinds of changes needed in national agricultural research and extension systems will also require the forging of new partnerships between the public system and NGOs, private sector firms, and farmers.