Innovative Investments in Agriculture and Food Security – CFS Side Event

Innovation in the agricultural sector was the topic of a side event held last Wednesday during the Committee on World Food Security (CFS 41) at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) building in Rome. Moderated by IFAD’s Gernot Laganda, panellists Richard Choularton (World Food Programme [WFP]), Andrea Cattaneo (FAO) and Santiago del Solar (Consorcios Regionales de Experimentacion Agricola [CREA]) contributed their perspectives on how innovation is generated, and how it is eventually adopted and used in the field.

In his initial remarks, Choularton proposed that innovation has a lot to do with failure. According to Choularton, previous donor investments secured incremental gains for small farmers, which every few years were wiped away by natural disasters such as droughts or floods. Perceiving the recurrence of these events, WFP developed a micro insurance scheme specifically tailored to improve the climate risk management of people with very few assets. The product is proving to be attractive to small farmers since they have the option to pay for premiums with their own labour. In Senegal and Ethiopia where this programme is active, insured farmers have been able to save more than twice the sum compared to those without any insurance, and they invest more in productive inputs.

However, innovation does not arise unswervingly. The long-term sustainability of the programme is not assured since, as Choularton conceded, about 80 percent of the cost of premiums is subsidized. And while small farmers enjoy the current work-for-insurance modality, it is unlikely private insurance companies would operate on the basis of in kind transfers. Nevertheless, it does not mean that this undoubtedly innovative financial mechanism cannot evolve in the context where the service is being provided, and actually facilitate a market for cash paying farmers. Indeed, the growth of farmers’ mutual insurance was a gradual process in Europe and North America.  

Andrea Cattaneo described the persistence of bottlenecks that can hinder innovation from taking hold. This can occur when, for example, policies are implemented unevenly, or establish perverse incentives, creating what he called ‘binding constraints’. Cattaneo also emphasized that innovation should be addressed in a broader system – through socioeconomic and climate  perspectives and trying to link the tailored solutions to specific National Agricultural Investment Plans.

Santiago del Solar representing the World Farmers Organizations through CREA (Consorcios Regionales de Experimentacion Agricola), an Argentine organization of  farmers dedicated to improving each farming enterprise, also offered edifying examples of how innovation can take hold in the most inhospitable of circumstances. Years ago, his group noticed that erosion and soil degradation were destroying agricultural land. The innovation they came up with was no-till technology, which at the time was not used in the Argentine countryside. Del Solar explained that when he first practised no-till, he made many mistakes. His own father criticized him because he would not use a plough like other farmers. But a generation later – 95 percent of Argentine farmers are using no-till farming methods. Nothing short of a revolution. In his words, innovation in the field occurs  because “farmers believe other farmers”.

What became salient to me during this session, was that innovation does not always occur within the timescales we prescribe. New behaviour and technologies are rarely inculcated within the span of a project. But, as Gernot Laganda offered in his summary, we should work to support innovation by identifying and addressing the financial drivers, institutional pathways and policy spaces that both define and negate agricultural paradigms. By training our efforts on change in these areas we can overcome the binding constraints that limit farmers’ abilities to realize their full potentials.