Growing Ideas: Projects Work to Spread Agricultural Innovations

Many farmers and research organizations around the world are working to create innovative solutions to agricultural problems. However, disseminating innovations and best practices to reach the farmers that need them the most can be a daunting challenge. But there are several organizations pushing the boundaries of conventional extension services and turning to new methods of spreading good ideas.

The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management (SANREM) is based at Virginia Tech University and supported by the U.S.

Agency for International Development (USAID). Through consortiums led by colleges and universities in the United States, the knowledge base uses a participatory model to engage stakeholders in forming questions for future research and identifying priorities.

Since its inception in 2005, the SANREM Knowledgebase (SKB) has gathered thousands of metadata entries and become a repository for resources produced by SANREM research. The searchable database, intended for both scientists and policymakers, is also open to the general public and regularly evaluated for continual improvement. The SKB collects informational resources to provide easy access to reports, books, videos, and presentations on sustainable agriculture and natural resource management.

Many of these resources were generated by original research of the SANREM project. SANREM research works to connect economic concerns of local populations in developing countries with sustainable natural resource management through a focus on good governance.

Participants work to complete degree and non-degree training plans through gender-sensitive programming. Goals of the project include income generation, improved soil quality, better resource management, stronger local institutions, market access for smallholders, and an integration of gender concerns.

The current research phase is focused on Conservation Agriculture Production Systems (CAPS) to increase smallholder farmers’ food security. To achieve higher yields over sustained periods of time, farmers work to reduce tillage and improve soil quality on small parcels. Furthermore, CAPS can produce social and gender benefits by saving time and labor. CAPS projects are taking place in 13 nations throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

[It’s] “critical that smallholder farms become more productive while controlling soil erosion and enhancing soil quality for sustainability,” writes B. A. Stewart, former director of the USDA Conservation and Production Research Laboratory in Texas in a review of SANREM research. “Conservation agriculture practices have the potential for achieving this goal, so this project is both timely and of great importance.”

Some of SANREM’s research focuses specifically on Payments for Environmental Services (PES) schemes, which are models that offer economic incentives to farmers for providing environmental benefits on their land.

The SKB was therefore expanded in 2007 to provide informational resources on PES, and now contains approximately 160 significant PES projects in addition to 150 other informational resources on PES such as books, journal articles, and reports. Users can easily access  these resources through queries on the regular SKB platform.

Another project, Scientific Animations Without Borders, uses animated videos to reach farmers in both developed and developing countries and improve access to critical agricultural knowledge. Based at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the project creates videos covering topics from yellow fever prevention to soil quality testing. “The animations can help to break the cultural barrier, the language barrier, and make the information accessible to all communities, all groups of people everywhere,” says Tololope Agunbiade, a PhD student working on the project.

Farmers that lack Internet access can receive and download the videos through mobile technology. “The concept behind this is to take these scientifically-validated approaches and put them in a format that can be easily understood by low-literate learners by voiceovers in their own languages,” says Dr. Barry R. Pittendrigh, Director of Scientific Animations Without Borders. Project goals include future videos on HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, dengue, safe water, cholera, improved agricultural practices, and ways to improve the livelihoods of women and children. In the U.S., new projects may focus on food safety, accident prevention, and farm safety.

These new approaches to disseminating innovation in agriculture—exemplified by both the SKB and Scientific Animations Without Borders—are helping democratize access to information. Many research institutions, funding organizations, and farmer groups are increasingly leveraging connectivity through the mobile technology and the web to showcase research results, lessons learned, and best practices. By sharing technical information more widely and transparently, these groups are working to spark new connections between farmers and researchers across regions, enabling innovations and best practices to inform production where farmers need them the most.

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