Farming systems research finds a new image
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CTA. 1995. Farming systems research finds a new image. Spore 56. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
Permanent link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/10568/47020
Farming systems research looks at agricultural production systems within the context of the ecological, social and economic environment experienced by the producer. In recent years agriculture in tropical countries has undergone many profound...
Farming systems research looks at agricultural production systems within the context of the ecological, social and economic environment experienced by the producer. In recent years agriculture in tropical countries has undergone many profound changes. Farming systems research has to take stock of present day conditions and devise better ways of helping farmers meet the challenges that they currently face. Throughout the world agriculture has gone through a period of intense change. Liberalization of agricultural markets, continuing reduction in subsidies, the sometimes harsh effects of withdrawal of state in the countries of the South and the realization that there must be sustainable management of natural resources, have prompted significant changes to rural life. Farming systems research must therefore adapt to these new developments. Farming systems research methodology was introduced into West Africa in the '70s and was widely adopted by national agricultural research systems (NARS) during the '80s. The aim was to speed up development and dissemination of innovative techniques that could increase agricultural production. Philippe Jouve of the National centre for training in tropical agriculture, France (CNEARC), explains that the systems approach grew out of a realization that agriculture is affected by a highly complex interaction of many factors. This changing perspective to agricultural study was partly reinforced by the recognition of the interaction between agronomic and socio-economic factors and has required new study methods, since it is no longer sufficient to limit studies to a specific piece of land or to the agricultural component alone. Nowadays it is necessary to accept the concept of a number of separate but interrelated systems; such as cropping systems, livestock production and land use systems. The functioning of these systems is determined by biological, technical, economic and social factors which is why it is essential to adopt a multi-disciplinary approach to agricultural problems. Taking account of small scale producers, who form the majority of the rural population, has always been a priority for farming systems research. For Jaques Faye of CIRAD, France, the new methodology has been successfully incorporated into the institutional framework. All the national agricultural research systems in West Africa have been reorganized in order to adopt it. They have recruited and trained many scientists and established research and development programmes. However the objectives have not yet been achieved. Rural producers still lack technologies which are adapted to their environment and which could improve their performance and output. What adjustments could be made in order to achieve this? 'In the past we have tended to think of research as one way, among many others, of giving aid to developing countries. However, many developing countries now have the human resources and the capacity to carry out the necessary research themselves. What we have to try to do is to facilitate and to increase the capacity for information exchange to scientists. It is to the need for dialogue that our attention should be directed. We have to develop a mutual respect for each other's work which does not automatically value one above the other.' Mario Catizzone, DG XII New policies, new priorities Agricultural policies are an important factor in systems research. The free market system, that is now becoming more widespread in the developing world, means that independent producers no longer have the security of a guaranteed price from state marketing boards. They have to face the uncertainty of free, national markets which are, in turn, affected by the influence of the world market. Furthermore, faced with the current Common Agricultural Policy of the KU, with its guaranteed prices, protected markets, subsidies for exported surpluses etc., and with the GATT agreements and structural adjustment, producers in the South are finding themselves having to take decisions in the context of increasing uncertainty. For example, under what sort of international competition has GATT placed the Sahelian livestock herder? How do regional policies affect the sustainable management of natural resources? These are questions which will require answers, and it is very important that these considerations are integrated into farming systems research because they will have a bearing on the form of assistance decided upon. The time when scientists could shut themselves away in their research stations has passed. Methodology based on a concept restricted to innovative technology must be rejected in favour of those methods which take account of organizational, institutional and economic realities. Farming systems research provides elements of methodology and observation which are very useful for encouraging dialogue with and between producers, but it fails to take account of the relationship between other individuals or organizations who are directly or indirectly involved. 'We have to distinguish between ethics and knowledge. Some seek to enlighten people, to bring them a better life, to empower women. But there is an important question that we have to ask ourselves: have we imagined that our systems-oriented research should somehow serve the cause of justice? After all, the physician uses his knowledge without worrying about justice. This is a valid debate. I would like to say that we will not make any headway unless we are able to make clear distinction between these various preoccupations.' Michel Sebillotte Many agricultural projects, in an attempt to increase crop yields, have sought only to transfer improved agricultural techniques and when they failed, it was the adequacy of the technical message that was questioned. Pierre Milleville, an agronomist with the Institut Française de Recherche Scientifique pour le Développement en Coopération (ORSTOM), says that agricultural research used to devote itself solely to progressive technology with the extension service being charged with the task of technology transfer and adoption. The mandate has now changed and nowadays has more to do with advising on an innovative approach that is fully integrated and holistic. This implies that there is a greater need for agronomists with a broad base of experience and knowledge than for researchers limited to a narrow focus of interest. In a farming systems approach, local conditions and the type of society, as well as the specific needs of the local population, are as important as the technologies that are being proposed. It has become apparent that the best way of evaluating any proposed innovation is to analyse it in consultation with those for whom it is intended and within their local situation. The problems which people have to contend with locally, and their ways of solving them, have an influence on technical and socio-economic factors. A new challenge The environment in many tropical countries is under threat from pollution, deforestation, loss of biodiversity and continuing reduction in soil fertility. Furthermore, shifting cultivation, having been shown to have its limitations when populations rise, presents a major ecological, socio-economic and institutional challenge. The farming systems approach is meant to take account of these factors and support competitive agriculture despite increasing pressure from population growth. In this respect, techniques of analysis must apply from the grassroots to the regional level. Farming systems research has, for a long time, omitted an important consideration: the knowledge of the people within that farming system. The value of farmers' own innovative techniques, and their knowledge of how to adapt local systems to environmental constraints, has now been brought into focus. Anne Floquet, on the basis of her work in Benin, points out that if farmers question their traditional practices and develop some new refinement, it is because they have good reason to do so. Analysis of local innovation to production systems allows a better understanding of the objectives of farmers and the constraints they encounter. Social scientists have therefore been brought in to evaluate projects. J P Olivier de Sardan, an anthropologist, says that this is difficult to do because farmers operate not as a result of one, but of many motives, some or most of which may be for status or political reasons as much as for economic gain. But he adds that it is satisfying work because it serves the needs of the people who count, the farmers. They are the ones who drive the system of production and it is from them that innovative techniques, well adapted to those production systems, will come. For many scientists in the North, this integration of all those working in the field of development within projects has brought with it a change of attitude. When proposed techniques are not applied to the last detail, it is no longer considered as failure. On the contrary, according to the sociologists and anthropologists, who now have a leading voice, when people make adaptations to the technology that has been presented to them, this is the best proof of its suitability. The best contribution to the processes of research and development come from this adaptation, suggests J P Olivier de Sardan. Farmer groups Farmer groups are comparatively new on the farming systems scene. For a long time farmers in the developed world have been able to make their voice heard through their own organizations. In most developing countries, state-controlled agricultural services have limited or controlled the power of farmers. Reduced state authoritarianism and, in some regions, the near disappearance of extension workers available to promote new technologies, has had the effect of encouraging producers to form groups in order to achieve a collective voice. Farming systems research must therefore include these farmer groups when devising, and then promoting, improved technologies. If farmer groups become a force to be reckoned with, a whole range of possibilities may open up. Will it just be a question of integrating these groups into the development process and recognizing their right to have a say? Or will it stimulate a broader debate, at the regional level perhaps, 50 that, in specific cases which affect them, producer groups would be included in the discussion about research priorities? And will these groups know how to represent the views of the local population? There are many questions to which answers still remain to be found. It is for the scientists to listen and take account of the expectations of farmers who will themselves define their needs. For Patrice Levang of ORSTOM, the emphasis should be on analysing the links within local groups and their environment and on working to a range of alternatives rather than a 'recipe'. This builds a self-confidence within groups for decision taking based on the complementarity between social sciences and agronomy. Recent studies have made it apparent that rural populations seem to be increasingly ready to take charge of their own development. This has been brought about, in part at least, by those government officials who have found themselves no longer in employment and who therefore return to their villages, bringing with them confidence and a knowledge of how to get things done. Nevertheless, it is wise to remain cautious since farmer groups may develop strategies with a view to influencing programmes of research that bring profit to the more affluent farmer. If farming systems research favours the elite, it has moved away from its original objective. ''Research priorities in the North are not the same as those in the South. Let each concentrate on what they can do best. Leave the basic research to the North and let the South concentrate on applied research. Our role is not to invent but to apply the processes of innovation in order to be able to respond to the needs of producers. There is no-one who can do this job better than we can.' Jacques Faye, an African scientist Need for change Jacques Faye argues that scientists from the developing world, as well as from the developed, need to adopt a change of attitude. The problem is that scientists from the South tend to feel that their work is devalued when it requires cooperation with small-scale farmers and market traders. For example they prefer to study agro-industrial technology, even though it is not from there that new employment or development will come. Responding to the needs of farmers seems too far-removed from their standing as scientists even though, in reality, successful innovation at farmer level requires great competence and scientific rigour. Unless research institutions in developing countries find a way of operating that is properly adapted to their own situation and to the needs of farmers, they will find great difficulty in working effectively on grass-roots innovation. If they fail to accept this need for change, pressure from farmer groups is likely to remind them of their duty.