Extension can be an important link to ensure that small farmers’ demands are the focus of rural development initiatives and to improve productivity and food security. A sound agricultural innovation system requires a combination of diverse extension service schemes that mobilize a variety of methods to educate smallholders.
Research conducted by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR) has found that extension systems are often under-resourced and use outdated ways of getting services to small-scale family farmers, thus preventing effective development. The majority of the world’s 500 million family farmers need to expand their understanding of markets and economic opportunities to move from subsistence farming to small-scale commercial farming. While these farmers tend to be innovative and entrepreneurial, they often lack the know-how to reach profitable markets and improve incomes on their own; they need advice and services that are tailored to their individual needs.
Increasingly, extension and rural advisory services are offered by both public and private initiatives. Support to producer organizations is also required so they can play a central and active role in shaping extension and research institutions.
The following challenges must be addressed to further sustainable and profitable development for these farmers:
- Building services that manage uncertainty in markets and technology, which is often caused by climate change. This requires the development of new services that provide information and training, facilitate discussions, and advise on probabilities and trends.
- Responding to change and unpredictability. Rapid change and instability require that extension and rural services commit to helping clients adapt to ever-changing conditions and pressures.
- Creating platforms for collaboration among smallholders, scientists, and other service providers so that they can act according to their own motivations and incentives.
Farmers, extension agents, and researchers need extensive training to address these challenges, and extension and rural services schemes need to be extremely adaptive and responsive to market signals, new technologies, and knowledge.
This process of transformation has only just begun. At GCARD1—the forum on sustainable agricultural development held in 2010 organized every two years by GFAR in collaboration with the CGIAR Consortium—participants adopted a shared goal of transforming agricultural innovation systems so as to have a greater impact on long-term development. To achieve this goal, development organizations must assess existing agricultural extension schemes; identify and design effective alternatives, policies, and strategies; and develop inclusive partnerships between extension, research, education, and enterprise services.
Take, for example, the newest extension programs and methodological tools used by RELACER in Brazil and Ecuador, which are tailored to farmers’ needs in their various agroecological and socioeconomic contexts. These services have driven development by working more closely with beneficiaries and allowing for the participation of diverse stakeholders. Rural extension is broad and participatory, and is built on active and open discussion between producers and their organizations, civil society, the private sector, and government entities. Each of them contributes in different ways, ultimately achieving synergy towards a single goal. In Ecuador, for example, the FAO and the Ministry of Agriculture were key players in implementing rural extension schemes. By contrast, producers’ organizations led similar efforts in countries like Chile and Paraguay; their approach has been an effective means of reaching the most vulnerable residents of rural areas.
Recognizing this need to strengthen agricultural advisory services around the world, GFAR co-founded the Global Forum of Rural Advisory Services (GFRAS), which aims to create and fund effective advisory services that will best meet the needs of farmers and effectively link them to these services. The goals of these services include:
- Building the capacity of agricultural development systems to generate, adapt, and transfer appropriate technologies for improved and sustainable agricultural production systems.
- Providing policy advice and support to create pluralistic, demand-led, and market-orientated systems, including new financing mechanisms and monitoring and evaluation services that track the services’ efficacy.
- Using Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) such as smart phones and tablets to improve communication between farmers and development organizations and to collect big data.
Extension is a key instrument for promoting sustainable and socially responsible agricultural intensification. It is essential to facilitate producers’ and policymakers’ access to information, knowledge and innovation. The development of Agricultural Innovations Systems, as advocated by GFAR and GFRAS, promotes collaboration between research, education, and agri-business in enabling environments that can bring appropriate expertise and relevant knowledge to producers. Pluralistic, multi-faceted, demand-driven extension services that empower producers (particularly youth, as agricultural producers becomes an aging population worldwide) are crucial for meeting food security targets and consumer needs at local, regional, and international levels.