Investment in agricultural research and technology development is a fundamental requirement for achieving more resilient and sustainable production systems. Yet in most cases, public support has significantly declined in recent decades. Reversing this neglect is thus an important priority. Shifting the focus of agricultural development from maximizing productivity to reducing risk and improving resilience has some important implications for priority setting in agricultural research and technology development. It will require paying greater attention to identifying the resilience of varying systems over a range of agro-ecological and socio-economic conditions. Equally important will be assessing the potential trade-offs between risks and returns to agricultural production strategies, and better incorporating them into agricultural development planning and investments.
There should be a greater focus on the development of technologies for low-input food production systems in low potential or marginal areas, which are home to hundreds of millions of the poorest and most food-insecure people. Developing and disseminating improved and adapted plant varieties and animal breeds are key, particularly in response to climate change.
There is a huge, but under-utilized potential to link farmers’ traditional knowledge with science-based innovations, and to increase the participation of farmers in conservation, crop and breed improvement, and the maintenance of seed supply systems (FAO, 2011c).
Agricultural biotechnologies can play an important role as well. These technologies cover a wide range of functions such as the use of molecular marker-assisted selection (MAS) to speed the development of improved varieties; molecular markers to identify priority genetic resources for conservation; tissue culture to overcome reproductive barriers; and biotechnologies for disease diagnosis and vaccine development to assist in reducing economic losses due to debilitating diseases (Lidder and Sonnino, 2011). An international technical conference on agricultural biotechnologies in developing countries held by FAO in March 2010 recognized this potential, with member states calling on developing countries and international organizations such as FAO to increase capacity for the development of agricultural biotechnologies to support smallholder agriculture.
While more work on developing technologies to support resilient and sustainable production systems is needed, an equally important issue for research is to improve understanding of why existing and known practices that meet these objectives are not more widely adopted and to develop appropriate responses. More effective extension systems will play an important role. In recent years, FAO has promoted Farmer Field Schools (FFS) as a participatory approach to farmer education and empowerment. The aim is to build farmers’ capacities to analyze their production systems, identify problems, test possible solutions,s and adopt appropriate practices and technologies. Field schools have been very successful in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, notably in Kenya and Sierra Leone, where they cover a broad range of farming activities, including marketing, and have proven to be sustainable even without donor funding (FAO 2011c).