Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Why aren’t climate change-change issues mainstream in agricultural development?

I have recently joined a great email list from Prolinnnova, that provides a regular digest of content relating to my own interests in social learning and locally-held knowledge (thanks again to Ann-Waters Bayer of Prolinnova for the recommendation which came in a conversation within the Climate Change and Social Learning (CCSL) network , funded by the Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) programme with which we have been working with since May 2012.

From the list I learnt of an excellent resource describing a range of approaches to providing agricultural Advisory and Extension Services (AES) that were captured at a USAID organised workshop. The summary that was circulated to the list is a great example of practical Knowledge Sharing – with a template for reports linking to a participative face-to-face meeting (speed-dating) and then shared on an email list. All the reports and much more material is available from the same site.

A climate filter

Oxford's Merton Border, seasonally dry
grassland seeds from across the globe, 
I was reading wearing a CCSL lens, assessing whether there is material that could be relevant to the network – our role includes network animation – but also because we have done a lot of work on Climate Change projects in the past few years. Seeking to learn more about how people are adapting to the increasing uncertainty and intensity of weather events that the climate change models predict has become one of my standard reading and browsing filters. So I was startled to discover on a first skim of the workshop report that there were no explicit references to climate change in any of the project descriptions. On one level, that is perhaps to be expected, since the event didn’t mention climate in the brief or in the template for reports. But I find it both odd and disturbing that connecting in some way with the realities of climate change isn’t simply a mainstream activity, something that is included as a matter of routine in discussions of agricultural development. It’s all the odder since USAID themselves have a big climate change programme, as do several of the other organisations represented. And climate-change is an issue permeating all sorts of agendas: even an ancient institution like the Oxford Botanic Garden, known for its lush English garden displays, is experimenting with "sustainable horticultural development", experimenting with seeds from semi-arid regions across the globe.

I think there’s a concern too, in that many of the approaches described in the documents focus on improving farm level inputs with externally supplied seeds and increased use of fertilisers, approaches that, on their own, may not be very adaptation-sensitive. Of course climate-change sensitive practices are included and promoted in many of the projects, with mentions of, “improved soil management methods”, “sustainable farming techniques”, “sound agronomic practices, including no till and minimum till agriculture” and “composting”. But one of the key questions in the report template was on challenges - shortcomings - limitations of the models, and another was on sustainability. It makes me gloomy to realise how far we have to go before the reality of climate-change is something that is unconsciously considered as part of the answer to such questions.

The CCSL lens focuses attention on participative and inclusive approaches, which I personally also link closely to issues relating of balancing exogenous and endogenous knowledge. This blending of locally held/endogenous with external knowledge is explicitly mentioned in only one case, a World Vision project. I acknowledge my likely bias but their project pressed all my buttons: “Emphasis on 1) experiential discovery and learning, 2) combining local and external science-based knowledge, and 3) farmer-to-farm diffusion, mediated by local experts (lead farmers) for credibility and sustainability”. Another programme that a CCSL lens highlighted is from who focus on, “Integrated Crop Management – the integration of Good Agricultural Practices with sustainable technologies to improve smallholder production quality, volumes and consistency”. As well as their emphasis on linking farmers to commercial value chains, Fintrac are actively addressing the issue of financial sustainability for the services they provide, although without a great deal of apparent tangible success to date.

Sustainability and social learning

On the one hand the integration of improved agricultural practices at a village or community level is, almost by definition, dependant on ‘socialising’ of those practices by all who are engaged in or affected by the systems. The seminar had had a narrower focus on financial sustainability. I was struck by the sharp and thought-provoking difference between three or four broad approaches
  • Commercial approaches, which tend to be associated with input suppliers, where extension services become integral to supply-chain management and promotion. These have a built-in revenue model and thus good prospects for longer-term sustainability, and there is plenty of evidence that farmers benefit financially, certainly in the short to medium term. There was less emphasis on practices which we could recognise as social learning or the importance of locally-held knowledge within the project descriptions from this category 
  • Paid-for services models, which provide start-up funding and/or training for extension services that are paid for on the farm. In terms of Social Learning, it’s interesting to see the challenge outlined by Farm Input Promotions in their summary: “VBAs tend to specialize in activities that earn them income e.g. chicken vaccination and neglect activities which only add them social capital e.g. advice on deep tillage”. 
  • Government programmes, which explicitly rely on continued central Government funds, much of which depends in turn on continued aid-flows. Again, Social Learning approaches weren’t immediately visible in the reports.
  • Traditional NGO led approaches, some of which have succeeded in enabling the development of revenue streams but all have to make the normal, optimistic statements about exploring diversified models while continuing to rely on grant funds. As noted above, it was examples from this category that the CCSL lens picked out. 
The sustainability conundrum is well expressed by Commercial Input Supply and Farm Service Enterprises (CNFA) in their response to the template question about challenges, shortcomings and limitations of the model. They say, “as a purely private sector model for delivery of training and information to farmers, CNFA retailers do not provide the kind of “classic” extension services that link academic research to independent (“objective”) extension agents in the field. Such an independent research and extension system is almost always a public investment few developing countries can afford.” Commercially oriented EAS are likely to continue growing, and there are many examples of businesses that integrate climate-change into their planning and activities. The question for us is perhaps how to engage commercial organisations in conversations about Climate Change, and Social Learning. These may involve activities that are less profitable in the short term but are essential for genuine long-term sustainability.