It took over 30 years for this research to impact on a few poor farmer families. We worked in isolation…100% top-down

Today let us listen to a story coming from the European e-consultation. It is told by Yves Savidan, from Agropolis International*

Forages in Asia (T58), CIAT

“I have been one actor among many in the story I will now tell you now. My organization is what we call an ARI in the GFAR/CGIAR jargon. And this is one ARI that mostly focuses on basic knowledge (or basic science). It means our leaders worry much more about having their scientists publish in good journals than having them make a real difference in the lives of people. This to say they don’t measure our performance in terms of impact. Still, it’s hard to work in developing countries, on subjects linked to agriculture, and not to worry, as a scientist, on how well our results will be used or not.

I worked on the reproductive biology of tropical forage grasses originated from East Africa, and more precisely on how to manage modes of reproduction (most tropical grasses reproduce by apomixis, or asexual reproduction through seeds) to produce plants mixing interesting traits linked to forage production, adaptation, etc. My team was based in Ivory Coast in the 1970s, and beside a series of theses and publications, we also released a few cultivars, including one Panicum maximum we called ORSTOM T58 because it had been collected in Tanzania (hence the ‘T’) by ORSTOM (later called IRD) in 1969. This cultivar, like others, was used by almost nobody in West Africa, because we couldn’t find organizations to multiply it and/or organizations to help farmers use it.

By the end of the 1970s, against my organization’s ‘philosophy’, I started looking around to find out ‘how to make our research put into use’. One colleague from FAO invited me to contact research organizations in Latin America, and I wrote a long letter and sent it to 45 research stations. We got 10 answers, most suggesting to build some sort of collaboration. Two of them were very attractive. They came from CIAT (a CGIAR centre) in Colombia and Embrapa in Brazil. They both invited me to join their team on tropical forage grass research. My DG was developing relations with Embrapa at that time and chose Brazil. So the cultivar T58 went with me (and with ca. 400 other accessions) and we started trials in different locations of Brazil. But I sent also our germplasm to CIAT and to Cuba.

By the end of the 1980s, Embrapa released a new cultivar, called Tanzania-1, which was my T58. They then released several others, from our germplasm, which have spread not only across Brazil but also in other Latin American countries.

For 30 years, at least in my mind, this work was associated with extensive cattle production in the tropics, in big farms own by ‘big farmers’, i.e. far from being poor people. And then I came to CIAT as a new Board member, rapidly promoted as program committee chair. I attended, as such, an internal review day for CIAT’s forage program and discovered what CIAT and its partners had been doing in South East Asia… with my T58. A presentation was given by a national scientist from Laos, showing how much the introduction of this plant, as an instrument to move cattle from being a mere insurance tool (kept unattended uphill) to becoming a milk and income producer (kept at the farm and fed through a cut-and-carry process with T58)… and change the life of many people. The economic data and some slides showing impact on rural livelihood in the region were convincing. Among many photos, he presented one I share it with you. It shows Gee Her, ca. 5 years ago, on her farm in Northern Laos. The plant is T58.

Lessons learnt? It took over 30 years for this research to impact on a few poor farmer families. 30 years before this research was put into use. 30 years lost in my mind, and I feel bad about it. Why? We worked in isolation and/or through bilateral collaborations that could only impact locally, on a limited number of big farms. We worked for many years on a subject that was of interest for scientists, 100% top-down. I believe we still need to produce a lot of new knowledge, but even knowledge production should be responding to a well identified need. It’s obviously hard to built the partnerships required for science results to be put into use if that piece of science has been originating from a mere scientist idea (even a good idea). So the no.1 lesson for me, and a key challenge for the future, is how we can mobilize the best of science, and especially science in the North, to address needs from the poor. How we can make that ARIs that do a lot on adaptation to climate change, or better use of water, or better management of diversity, etc. etc. listen to all those stakeholders who know better what the needs are and start considering that putting research into use is as important as research itself, encouraging their scientists (making it a strong evaluation criteria) to consider that impact is as important as scientific articles.

*Yves Savidan is working for several organizations, seconded by l’Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD, France) to a cluster organization called Agropolis International and located in Montpellier. He also works as Science Council Chair at Agropolis Foundation. He is currently strongly involved in the organization of GCARD, being the Local Organizing Committee Chair in Montpellier.

2 thoughts on “It took over 30 years for this research to impact on a few poor farmer families. We worked in isolation…100% top-down

  1. Yves is absolutely right on how research (basic or applied) should be evaluated. I believe Embrapa is on the right tract since every year some technologies are evaluated on their impacts (socia, economic, environmetal, etc.) and the returns for society are quantified.
    Even though T58 is widely used by large producers, it still is very much used by family farms (especially dairy porduction) throughout Latin America, so maybe its the impact evaluation technique that need to be perfected nad statistics need to be announced.
    Good work Yves, keep the spirit and the expectations high and alive!

  2. Congratulations to Dr Savidan for such remarkable work, which makes us all proud as scientists.
    I think that the introduction of T58 (or Tanzania-1) should also be seen from another perspective, not stressed in the interview: it helped farmers to develop a new insight as how to use grasses to feed cattle, which now is widespread in South America.
    It was, indeed, the big farmers that took the lead on its usage first hand. However, it was their approach of using it as a “crop” that helped to increase and to keep stable meat production in the region, with affordable prices; thus, facilitating the access of poor people to such important protein source.
    Keeping that in mind, I believe T58 has been is helping poor people all the way over.
    That is a non-direct impact of a technology that would be difficult to measure in deep, perhaps indicating that such evaluations are to be made by a broader pannel, and not be limited to its potential influence on a short-time frame or a given prodution system

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