Thursday, 6 February 2014

Understanding tomorrow’s farming needs today

Some half a billion farmers who assure local-level domestic food security and underpin agricultural exports are facing great changes in the next two decades. ACIAR’s Principal Adviser Dr John Dixon shares ideas on the drivers of rural change and how these alter farmers’ incentives to innovate. 

One of the challenges for farmers and researchers is understanding what the farms of tomorrow will look like, and using that viewpoint to guide investments on the farm, and in research.
Today’s investments will be vital for future farming

Today’s investments in agricultural research need to support both current and future farming systems — by enhancing production today, and generating  technologies which increase farmers’ productivity and profitability for tomorrow. Getting research priorities right for future productivity is vital as it often takes 10 – 15 years or more for new technologies to be widely adopted.

So how much do we know about the farming systems of 2030 in Asia, Africa or Australia? Take India for example - will Indian farmers grow rice and wheat for export in mechanised ‘no-till’ systems, purchasing no-till drills instead of ploughs? Will they use heat-tolerant hybrid crop varieties instead of re-using traditional varieties? Will they feed dairy cows on green forage instead of dry crop residues? And how large will farms be, will environmental regulations define activities, will more land be swallowed up to urban living? Will today’s rural children still see a future on tomorrow’s farms?

Most pundits expect rice, maize, wheat and cassava will still be the basis for food security for the 9 billion or so consumers in 2030. However, it is likely that diets of people in developing countries will diversify to include greater amounts of foods such as pulses, oilseeds, milk, meat and fish. As population, incomes and non-food uses of land expand, production demands are likely to increase, by as much as 50% to 60%. Tomorrow’s farmers are likely to have less land and water than is available today. 
"Research is most effective when it targets the needs for the farmers of tomorrow, and there would be high pay-offs to foresight studies focused on the agricultural sector."

Drivers of change can be quick and unexpected in their emergence (e.g. conflict or plant or animal diseases). For example, the rapid spread of the virulent Ug99 stem rust of wheat in the early 2000s required an emergency response to identify and breed resistant cultivars before global food production was threatened.

Minimum-till rice in Cambodia
However, drivers of change can also be slow and predictable (e.g. land degradation or input availability). Two examples of slow but critical drivers of Asian farming systems are the rise of farm wages and the increased salinity of agricultural deltas. The former prompted ACIAR research on alternative methods for rice establishment (e.g. project in Cambodia). Another example is our recent research on the growth of food trade between African countries.

How can future scenarios be described better to ensure the relevance of agricultural research?  There have been many foresight studies during the past few years. For example, last year the Independent Science and Partnership Council of the CGIAR reviewed changes in urbanisation and farm size and their implications for CGIAR research (see their report). A paper on Understanding African Farming Systems at the 2012 Food Security in Africa conference proposed seven drivers that shape pathways of future rural change:
  • Population, poverty and hunger: Today’s school children are the farmers of 2030. Unlike their parents, many will have the skills and opportunities to migrate to urban areas — or to become productive modern family farmers. Shifts of population, and urbanisation, can have massive effects on land pressure and food markets and thereby on farming systems. Over time we also see the average age of farmers rising as youth migrates to industry and cities.
  • Natural resources and climate: The increasing prevalence and severity of droughts and floods overlays the gradual erosion of soil fertility. Innovations such as insurance and drought-tolerant crop varieties will be needed to reduce such risks.
  • Knowledge, networks and social capital: Literacy and numeracy are important skills for modern farming and rural educational opportunities can be expected to expand.
  • Energy: Many observers anticipate future costs over $200 per barrel of oil. This will push up prices of fertiliser and transport, especially for high-input agriculture in Europe, North America, and the irrigated ‘food bowls’ in developing countries. Energy-saving technologies such as conservation agriculture will be sought. It is likely that renewable sources, including solar power, will fill a growing part of the demand for energy.   
  • Trade and markets: With economic growth, strengthened value chains will lead to massive changes in farming systems, substantial farm growth, and diversification — enabling the growth of agricultural imports and exports. Input and labour markets are also critical to the intensification of farming. 
No-till planting of wheat in Patna, India
  •  Science and technology: Few doubt the centrality of technology in underpinning change. Even 50 years ago, agricultural development specialists recognised that ‘constantly changing technology’ was needed to increase productivity and production – and this is still an important driver. One of the technology waves sweeping over Asia is mechanisation, with implications for livestock populations, crop rotations, varieties and product quality. The area of genetically manipulated organisms (GMOs) is growing worldwide at 9% per year but still represents a small part of total crop area.   
  • Policies and institutions: Domestic regulations shape the local institutions and sometimes set input and output prices (e.g. subsidies). However, regional and bilateral trade agreements that encourage free trade are expanding and are an important driver of farming systems change.

Markets are developing for better quality fodder in
many countries. This example shows Mucuna forage
for dairy cows in Zimbabwe
The trends and effects of these drivers are helping shape our understanding of future farm needs for innovations. ACIAR works with partner countries to identify priorities, and designs research interventions to meet those priorities. Two messages are crucial: research is most effective when it targets the needs for the farmers of tomorrow; and there would be high pay-offs to foresight studies focused on the agricultural sector. 

By Dr John Dixon, ACIAR's Principal Adviser (Research), and Research Program Manager for Cropping Systems and Economics.

More information:
Synthesis Report for the CGIAR Foresight Study on Trends in Urbanization and Farm Size in Developing Countries: Implications for Agricultural Research (ISPC Synthesis Report)

ACIAR projects:
CSE/2009/037 Improved rice establishment and productivity in Cambodia and Australia 

CSE/2010/022 Integrating crops and livestock for improved food security and livelihoods in rural Zimbabwe

African Agricultural Futures – Opportunities, Challenges and Priorities 

Understanding African Farming Systems – Science and Policy Implications


  1. With budgetary development, fortified quality ties will prompt gigantic changes in cultivating frameworks, considerable homestead development, and enhancement — empowering the development of agrarian imports and fares. Enter and labour markets are additionally basic to the heightening of cultivatin.

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  2. Great Informative blog.. If you do not clean your planet, Mother Nature’s not destined to be happy.... So we need waste management services and environmental services for good human health and keep clean the environment.

  3. Nice thoughts about the future farming trends! So need to upgrade the present farming methods so that farmers yield higher productivity in the future.


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