The public sector has a crucial role in generating and making available agriculture-related information to smallholder farmers, argues Ajit Maru, GFAR’s Senior Knowledge Officer, but more research is needed on how this information is used and managed as these farmers transition to more market-oriented production.
The foundations of the Asian “Green Revolution” that resulted in spectacular increases in production and productivity of rice and wheat were large-scale government subsidies. The minimum price of the agricultural commodity was assured by governments; electricity, irrigation, fertilizers, pesticide and even seed were made available free or at much reduced rates to farmers. Agricultural extension, which was providing new information and knowledge needed for these management responsive crops, was not only provided free but was also carried out by government agencies.
The shift from subsistence to market-oriented agriculture is resulting in new and different crops such as fruits, vegetables and intensive animal production. With these new crops, farmers’ needs for information are rapidly changing. At the same time, governments are reducing investment in public sector agricultural extension as they come under political and economic pressure to control their expenditure, so that farmers have even less assistance and access to new information. In many countries in Asia, there is growing expectation that farmers will seek extension and information services from other providers such as cooperatives, commodity associations, private consultants, telecommunication services providers and civil society organizations as government extension services are reduced and withdrawn.
Smallholder farmers are mostly resource poor, not just in terms of finance, land and water but – equally importantly – information and new knowledge. The availability of relevant, timely and affordable information and the ability to use it effectively are major factors affecting farmers’ ability to participate in markets. This has impacts on these farmers’ livelihoods especially when they have to radically shift their farming practices.
The argument for making extension a paid service is that the information provided is an input as in any other in market-driven business and that the farmer can profit by its appropriate use. The farmer should pay for these services under the principle of “producer pays” for the benefits they get in production of commodities. However, this argument needs to be made with care in a situation where markets and the shifts in farming systems, input provision and market participation, are still evolving.
The information each farmer now needs is very specific. Generic information as offered in current extension approaches to farmers and producers does not yet satisfy the needs for market participation. For example if agricultural scientists in a research station work out that growing one acre of tomatoes optimally require nitrogen as five kilograms as urea, it is not necessary for the farmer to apply only five kilograms of the fertilizer. She may need to adjust the dose according to her needs. Her land may already have nitrogen equal to two kilograms of urea and so she needs only three more kilograms. However, if her land has less than “average” levels of urea, she may need to apply more than five kilograms.
If the farmer applies more fertilizer than actually needed, she has wasted it and has lost some of her investment and profit. If she under-doses the fertilizer she will not get the most optimum yield and also suffers a loss of profit. So the farmer needs specific information to get optimal returns when she participates in markets. This information is her “private good” that is generated from “public good” information.
This new model of providing farmers with specific information primarily makes public good information (the base rate of urea) usually produced by the public sector or government into a private good (the dose the farmer needs to apply). The conversion of this information from a public good to a private good is usually done by an intermediary working for profit and who is paid for the service.
This new model raises many issues. At the very core, almost all agriculture-related information – even in economically developed countries – is generated by publicly-funded agricultural research and development organizations and is technically “public good”. This information has to be available and accessible by all. There must be capacities created in the larger agricultural communities to transform this information into “private good” to support users of agricultural information. The information must be affordable and useful to the ultimate user, the farmer and producer.
This brings to the fore that the public sector and government cannot absolve themselves from a crucial role in generating and making available, in accessible form, information as a “public good” that farmers can ultimately benefit from. At present and in the foreseeable future, governments and the public sector will remain the largest collaborators and generators of agriculture related information. In evolving agricultural systems as in Asia, governments are also responsible for creating and governing the systems and capacities to effectively use information.
However, there is a lack of basic understanding of how farmers are using information in transforming agricultural and farming systems, as they shift to being market-oriented, as well as of the roles of different types of information and the relationship of “public” and “private” data and information. There is an urgent need for research in agricultural information management, especially in the context of smallholder farmers, in mapping quantitatively patterns of use of information and information services and the principles governing the structure and functions of agricultural information systems. Without this understanding, policy making, developing Institutions for smallholder participation in markets, and supporting the shift to new forms of agriculture and farming will not be possible.
This was a part of a larger discussion around the economics of agricultural information for smallholder agriculture in a Club of Ossiach, Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and GFAR/FAO organized Workshop at the International Conference on Intelligent Agriculture, Beijing on 28 September 2015. Ajit Maru chairs the Club of Ossiach and Walter Mayer of PROGIS facilitated the Workshop. For more information contact email@example.com
Photo: Apurv Maru