Beyond Big Knowledge

Since the 1970s, agricultural research and development (R&D) has invested mainly in a few research institutes equipped with cutting-edge instruments. Multinational seed and agrochemical companies invest billions of dollars to develop products in hopes that they will be used by millions of farmers.

This one-size-fits-all approach has had qualified success. In a 2011 analysis, average global crop yields increased by 56% between 1965 and 1985, and by 20% from 1985 to 2005, underpinned by increasing inputs of non-renewable resources (such as chemical fertilizers made from oil).

But advances are slowing. According to a 2013 study, yields have plateaued in some of the world’s most important food-producing regions, including east Asia (for rice) and northwest Europe (for wheat). In some countries, yields have declined.

The next wave of innovation must be at smaller scales. What one farmer can do to boost yield or efficiency is not necessarily the same as for a farmer hundreds of kilometres away with different soil, microclimate, topology and methods. As weather patterns fluctuate, gains in production will depend ever more on innovating in context. Big knowledge flowing from institute to farm must be complemented by local knowledge.

Farmers everywhere are practical experimentalists who understand the idiosyncrasies of their land. Modern agronomy evolved out of practices such as rotating crops to rebuild soil nutrients, fertilizing fields with manure, and adding lime to soil to alter pH. Even technologies not invented by farmers — new kit, seeds or chemicals — are adapted by them to fit their circumstances. Such essential contributions are rarely recognized in official assessments of agricultural R&D, which count farmers as users, rather than makers, of knowledge.

Until now farmer-led, participatory research initiatives have existed almost exclusively in the developing world, and have been at arm’s length from formal science. However our involvement in a farmer-focused innovation programme in the United Kingdom has convinced us that such participatory R&D could also boost agricultural innovation in rich countries.

– From Agriculture: Engage farmers in research by Tom MacMillan & Tim G. Benton