Small-scale farmers throughout the tropics have long faced serious challenges. Many have struggled to secure access to nutritious food and good incomes. Climate change and ever dwindling natural resources make life even more difficult. However, with challenge comes opportunity. Dr. Ruben Echeverría, Director General of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), informs Food Tank that there is good reason to be hopeful about the problems facing tropical agriculture—and agricultural research has a large role to play.
CIAT is based in Cali, Columbia, but they have projects in more than 50 countries. The institute works with small-scale farmers in low-income countries to improve food security, incomes, resilience, and natural resource management. To achieve their goals, CIAT develops new crop varieties, farming techniques, and technologies and disseminates them to farmers. CIAT also uses research, outreach, and policy engagement to help improve small-scale farmers livelihoods and integrate them into markets. In recent years, climate change resilience and sustainability have become top priorities for the organization.
“Climate change is having a huge effect on tropical agriculture, and vice-versa,” Dr. Echeverría tells Food Tank. He elaborates, “we expect a significant reduction in the growth periods of most crops plus a dramatic increase in weather variability and extreme events like floods and drought.” Increased temperatures and unpredictable and extreme weather can lead to significant harvest losses. For this reason, CIAT and other agricultural research programs around the world have made a significant break from the past and refocused much of their efforts on building climate resilience. Climate resilience is the ability for farmers to endure and recover after shocks like hurricanes and droughts. Fortunately, Dr. Echeverría observes farmers are adapting much faster than he expected by changing agronomic techniques and demanding new technologies.
While CIAT has long focused primarily on increasing the productivity and incomes of farmers throughout the tropics, they also have come to recognize the importance of sustainability. Indeed, the organization sees sustainability as vital for continued food production. As such, they research and promote sustainable intensification, an approach to agriculture that increases food production while minimizing impacts on the environment.
For example, there are techniques that can address the devastating effects that growing meat demand is having on the environment. “A lot of research on this issue shows that there are sustainable tree-crop-livestock production systems that can reduce deforestation and land degradation,” Dr. Echeverría informs Food Tank. “Improved pastures, better rotations, more efficient livestock management techniques, and much more can help.”
Another exciting trend in agricultural research is the use of big data. Scientists are now using extremely large sets of data collected on climate conditions, crop genetics, and other factors, such as soil type. They use this data to develop new farming technologies and develop forecasts to make planting recommendations.
In 2017, CIAT launched the Big Data Platform to provide global leaders with open data, build collaborations, and demonstrate the power of big data analytics to enhance the impact of international agricultural research. “CIAT researchers continue to lead award-winning work demonstrating that big data and artificial intelligence have a key role to play in informing farmers’ decisions, helping them getting ahead of climate variability to produce more food, and make more income,” says Dr. Echeverría to Food Tank, referring to the recent awards that CIAT researchers won from the United Nations and Syngenta.
Though the future of tropical agriculture holds promise, Dr. Echeverría underscores the need for more support for small-scale farmers and more research funding in important areas. International companies could do more to incorporate small-scale farmers in their value chains, and national research programs need to do more to support small-scale farmers.
Similarly, Dr. Echeverría explained there is potential to expand the narrower focus of past agricultural research. Some researchers and activists have critiqued agricultural development programs for promoting cheap calories at the expense of a more diverse, nutritious food supply. However, Dr. Echeverría does not see it that way. He asserts to Food Tank that, “public international crop research has focused on the main cereals—rice, wheat, maize—because of their global importance in food security.” Still, he recognizes public agricultural research and donors to international agricultural could follow the lead of the private sector and extend funding to crops such as legumes, roots, tubers, and vegetables.
Furthermore, Dr. Echeverría tells Food Tank that, “urbanization and globalization require a fresh look at what sustainable food systems would look like in the next three or four decades.” To make sustainable intensification a reality, Echeverría believes future investments in research will need to take these trends into account.
So, what can those not involved in agricultural research do to support small-scale farmers and build sustainability in the food system? Dr. Echeverría thinks that there is a role for consumer choice and improved labeling of agricultural products. For example, large industrial plantations in the tropics use techniques that contribute to climate change and destroy the environment. With more comprehensive labeling, consumers could demand products that either come from small-scale farmers or plantations using more environmental practices.