Putting Farmers First to Transform Agriculture

24 April 2009

Wednesday 22 April saw the launch of a new book, which emphasises the importance of putting farmers at the centre of agricultural innovation and development. The event was part if IDS’ ‘Dangerous Ideas in Development’ series, held jointly with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Debt, Aid and Trade. 

Farmer First Revisited: Innovation for Agricultural Research and Development, is edited by Ian Scoones and John Thompson of the Institute of Development (IDS) Studies. The launch featured presentations by Robert Chambers of IDS and Patrick Mulvany of Practical Action. At the event were many of the books’ contributors and people who have been involved in ‘farmer first’ and other agriculture and development movements, including Gordon Conway, DFID’s Chief Scientific Adviser.

Farmer First Revisited discusses the methods, institutions and support systems required to transform agriculture research and development systems; how farmer first approaches can help boost production and get the right seeds and other inputs into the hands of farmers; and how farmers can lead climate adaptation responses, using local knowledge and systems to improve resilience and the capacity to change.

The book is published twenty years after the original ‘Farmer First’ book, when the idea of promoting farmer-led agricultural innovation was considered a marginal, almost subversive, issue. This was followed in 1994 with ‘Beyond Farmer First’. But today mainstream opportunities exist for transforming agriculture and putting farmers firmly in the driving seat of change.

In the intervening two decades, the Farmer First movement - a loose, informal network stretching across the world - has experimented with a range of participatory approaches to agricultural research and extension with farmers at the heart of the innovation process. 

Participatory plant breeding, for example, has involved farmers in the process of choosing and testing new crop varieties.  Extension systems have equally been transformed, moving from top-down instruction towards farmer-to-farmer exchange and joint learning. The use of new information technologies has expanded too, allowing information sharing between farmers. As a result, farmers are increasingly seen as partners in the innovation process, rather than merely recipients of national and international research and extension systems.

Yet failures of conventional agriculture and associated institutional arrangements are apparent everywhere. The generation of an African Green Revolution, for example, requires a new agriculture based on partnerships, not top-down impositions and rooted in diverse knowledges rather than singular technical solution. Wider perspectives on innovation, linking with research and markets, technology development and users are needed.

That opportunities exist for farmers to drive this innovation are especially evident in Africa. Government commitments through the CAADP/NEPAD framework are in place; funding support is being channelled through organisations like AGRA; and policy wider commitments are being affirmed by the IAASTD, the World Bank’s World Development Report on agriculture and the discussions around the Global Partnership for Agriculture.

Joachim Voss, former Director General of the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia comments: “Farmer First has won broad acceptance by rigorously proving its superior efficiency in making science work for the poorest and most marginal farmers.  It is indeed a pleasure to see how the established and dedicated practitioners, together with a new generation of committed young scientists, have built upon the original concepts and methods to create this dynamic, exciting and effective corpus of work.