Are public goods for the public?

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Pauline Jeff is a 47 year-old vegetable farmer who owns an acre of land where she grows amaranthus, fluted pumpkin, eggplant, spinach and okra. She learned how to farm from her parents and has been making a living at it for the last 20 years.

After Pauline married, she moved to the city with her husband where she continued to farm.  Owning no land of her own, and because of the pressures of urbanization on available land, each year  she would look for small areas that she could farm. Five years ago, together with 25 other farmers, she found unused land at the Army post-service estate. Since the farmers’ use of the land would completely cut the costs of maintaining the land, they were granted permission to occupy it.

Over 120 farmers now use the available  land of the estate, growing vegetables of all kinds. Until 2015, pests and diseases were kept under control using pesticides. Then, suddenly, a new infestation which couldn’t be controlled ravaged Pauline’s farm.  At between 4-6 weeks, the stems of the amaranthus and pumpkin plants bent until they wilted off. The attack spread very fast and within months, all 120 women experienced the same problem. They were losing their crops, their investments, and their source of livelihood. After six months of poor outcomes and not knowing where to find the solution, Pauline and her friends quit farming.

A young researcher doing social work happened to hear about the story. He paid a visit and took some soil samples. Testing revealed the problem was a common fungal pest known as “pythium” responsible for the disease called “damping off”. This disease had already been the subject of extensive research work all over the world, so preventive and corrective measures of treatment were already available.

In major areas in Africa, smallholder farmers are experiencing hard times as crops get ravaged by pests, extreme weather conditions, climate change, nutrient deficiency and bad management practices, among other challenges. Much research has been done all over the world on these different subjects and under different systems and methodologies, though in some cases, additional research needs to be done to tackle new challenges.

Isn’t it about time that agricultural researchers redirected their focus from developing science publications to add to their portfolios and get promotions, while the public – for whom the research has been developed  – groans in poverty because they have no access to the solutions?! Wouldn’t it be truly transformative to implement concrete measures to transfer public goods to the public sphere and create impact that would transform our economies?  These are important steps that need to be taken as we strive for a food secure world.

The Global Forum for Agricultural Research (GFAR) and partners, at the GCARD3 Global Event being held at Johannesburg, South Africa; 5th – 8th April, 2016  deliberated on how to ensure research can improve the livelihoods of farmers. The outcomes will pave the way forward for the future of research, especially in bringing research outcomes to the farmers. Current discussions have yielded some insights and give cause for hope with their focus on “demand-led research” from farmers, but so much more needs to be done.

Blogpost by Jacinta Uramah, #GCARD3 Social Reporter – jcuramah(at)gmail.com
Picture courtesy P.Casier/CCAFS

This post is part of the live coverage during the #GCARD3 Global Conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, 5-8 April 2016. This post is written by one of our social reporters, and represents the author’s views only.


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