What Technology Means for Agriculture: The Big Picture

Before I joined the FoodInsight team, I’d spend work days in one of two ways. Some days, I’d be riding between African farms in the back of a pickup, learning the Nkole word for ‘thank you’ and seeing first-hand the barriers to and impact of technology for small farms. The rest of the time, I’d be thinking, talking, and writing about what I’d seen and how we can improve it.

These experiences stuck with me, and they’ve motivated me to improve knowledge-sharing among all the parts of the supply chain, from the farmer to the consumer. This week, I read Tamar Haspel’s Washington Post piece, The last thing Africa needs to be debating is GMOs. Tamar covered a lot of important points, and 4 of them really resonated with me:

africa-banana-technology1. The improvements from these technologies do really, really matter.

Joe DeVries, director of seed programming at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), told Tamar: “By using a little bit of fertilizer with an improved seed, like a hybrid, farmers can double and triple their yields.” He’s absolutely right. Through a combination of free best practices, like raised beds, and investments in technologies like drip irrigation, fertilizer, and improved seeds, I’ve seen very poor farmers triple their income in a single growing season.  Agricultural technologies are the most significant weapon against poverty I’ve seen. (For more on how agriculture reduces poverty and food insecurity, check out my article on floriculture.)

So what about the low-technology “tradition” of farming? Anne Wangalachi explained this issue brilliantly to Tamar, saying, “The people who push for this narrative are well-fed. There’s nothing dignified about going hungry.”

2. Debating food biotechnology, the safety of which is well-established, is a barrier.

The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) works on research and development to improve food security in Africa. They’ve developed and introduced varieties of banana that are more productive and resistant to pests and diseases, and they’ve developed soybean varieties that are resistant to disease. Tamar summed up their efforts simply: “Nobody was very focused on genetic modification per se; they were all too busy solving problems.”

If we set aside the fear-based arguing, we can really get something done.

africa-technologyTaken while interviewing a Grameen Foundation farmer group about their use of fertilizer

3. Farmer income is important, even if it isn’t what we usually think about.

One of the biggest fears of agriculture in developing countries right now is that so many people are moving from rural to urban areas, there won’t be enough people farming and producing food. Why would people move? Farming somewhere with poor infrastructure, centuries-old technology, and no connection to markets is not profitable. Tamar’s interviews highlighted this issue: If we want youth to stay on the farm and invest in agriculture, it needs to be in their best interest.

4. There is a way forward.

Our experience with agricultural technology use, acceptability, and communication has taught us a lot.  Tamar highlights that our experience should be a benefit in the global expansion of technology, saying, “The way to help other countries avoid our mistakes isn’t to deny them tools but to help them deploy those tools more effectively than we have.” If we had it all to do over again, what would we do differently? How can we help emerging economies make smart decisions that allow them to benefit from productivity and resilience-enhancing technologies?

Tamar’s last thought is a perfect one to leave on, and it continues to motivate me: “Widening options to help farmers lift themselves out of poverty is, I think, about as honorable as work gets. Any attempt to narrow them is advocacy gone awry.”