Forum global sur la sécurité alimentaire et la nutrition (Forum FSN)

Primarily, it is governments who shall provide support to all farmers from commercial through to subsistence farmers via AEAS with the emphasis on providing quality not quantity. Such an extension system should design appropriate mechanisms to cater to the needs and demands of resource-poor, particularly women farmers, remote area farmers, different ethnic and disadvantaged groups who are often the most food and nutrition insecure. Unfortunately state capacity in many countries is low and there are many local political imperatives at play pushing officials in policy directions that contradict the aims of development and poverty reduction. Governments and to some extent the private sector, target their extension and input resources to richer farmers and landowners, leading to the perception that they ignore the plight of the poor.

Hereby we share a couple of findings, approaches and opinion pieces which are based on our project ‘Nutrition in Mountain Agro-ecosystems’ (NMA) aiming to improve the sustainability and the diversity of diets in 5 countries: Ethiopia, Nepal, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan and Peru by improving the access to sufficient nutritious food for and the resilience of rural communities in mountain regions.

The need for new sources of production will inevitably require AEAS to reach out to marginal farming communities and help strengthen farmer organizations to improve productivity and help them develop business skills, find market opportunities, and navigate modern market chains. An extension system suitable to meet the needs of farmers and farming communities in the twenty-first century should be conceived in the broader sense, than it has been in the past of merely being a provider of technical advice through lip service or word-of-mouth. It should coordinate and facilitate networking among public and private stakeholder institutions for research, education, inputs, credit, processing and marketing. Joint planning, implementation monitoring, impact assessment, and sharing in a project mode should be emphasized. This should be incorporated in the extension policy and strategy by the policy making body. Access to inputs and credit, and rural markets development are also crucial for effective extension service delivery. The better AEAS providers are connected with diverse stakeholders, the greater their potential is to offer multifunctional services.

In many countries, extension agents tend to have a relatively low education level and limited training in modern communication techniques. Continuous capacity development of AEAS providers is key for the quality service. Policies must provide the regulatory framework for (participatory) curricula development based on needs assessments, continuous in-service education, quality assurance and accreditation of AEAS providers. In order to play the role described above, they must embrace ICT in order to scale information services and extension operations to meet the needs of millions of smallholders. Part of the new extension approach must involve close cooperation among field agents, managers, and ICT service providers. The systems will require that farmers register with the e-systems and pay at least a part of the costs for information. They will also have to work with extension teams to gather routine data (e.g. weather, soil conditions), monitor pest and disease situations, and report information on costs and access to key inputs and services.

For better nutrition outcomes, extension services should shift the approach from specialist advisory services to the wholefarm approach within the context of district/regional level development plans.

Provision of education and advice must address the whole farm as a business, taking account of the objectives of the farming family.

It is also important that service providers consider the nutritional status of the farm family. All support services should provide advice on nutrition and should help families to foster the potential of their children through education and developing farm skills. In addition to helping highly vulnerable farmers improve their food and marketing targets, extension staff can also help them by supporting better risk and financial management.

There are quite a few countries where the development of farmers’ organizations is limited to the formation of farmers’ groups at the grassroots level and there is no central body to lobby on behalf of the farmers in general. AEAS with clients’ participation will empower farmers’ organizations to negotiate with service providing institutions and the government by giving feedback on the currently implemented programmes and expressing clients’ needs, priorities and demands for future programmes intervention. This will help reform the policy and make the extension service efficient, effective and sustainable. Thus, demand-driven local level food security needs and commercialization can be addressed through participatory extension development.

AEAS would benefit significantly from being better informed about the needs of farmers within specific value chains. Participatory extension service should emphasize value-chain development for achieving commercialization and competitiveness. AEAS can engage in adult learning and participatory methods to enable extension agents to work with farmers as equal partners rather than telling them what to do. Farmer-to-farmer approaches, local-or community-based extension approaches (sharing of information on improved agricultural practices or diets within their community) characterized by the use of para-professionals are also found to be an effective way to provide flexible and cost-effective services to resource-poor farmers in marginalized rural areas. For instance, the Mountain Agro-ecosystem Action Network (MAAN) established by the NMA project is a vibrant online platform where rural service providers and farmers can share their solutions and lessons learnt as well as discuss issues which might be relevant for the regional or national policy makers. Lead farmers can also be used to organize farmers into groups for knowledge exchange and for accessing inputs and services.

Resource use efficiency and environmental protection tend to remain low on the political agenda in rural areas which hinders any coordinated efforts to develop a coherent nutrient management strategy and policies to improve nutrient use efficiency by farmers. The extension system is poorly equipped with innovations in natural resources management and climate change. In many cases AEAS are particularly prone to neglecting ecological and social priorities (e.g. focus on short-term productivity increases through high input agriculture). Soil fertility management, water conservation technologies, agroforestry, quality control and certification, climate change adaptation and mitigation measures should form extension agenda in addition to agro-biodiversity conservation, promotion and use. It can be noted that both a lack of relevant regulation and publicly available monitoring data for ground and surface water quality, means that there are no ‘baselines’ against which to set advice and training for good farming practice.

In many parts of the world, farmers do not have good access to information on alternatives to industrialized agriculture because much of their advice comes from representatives of companies that sell both seeds and pesticides. Even the few independent agronomists struggle to get independent information and advice to pass on to farmers. Agro-ecological systems like organic agriculture entails diversifying production resulting in a more diverse and nutritious diet for the family. AEAS must be trained on ecological farming and on sharing this approach, and support the farmer-to-farmer sharing of ecological approaches.

Where chemical fertilizers are used, the economic optimum (profit maximising) fertilizer application rate is less than the agronomic optimum, as determined by the point at which diminishing marginal returns to increased fertilizer use match the incremental costs of that additional use. Farmers can be expected to aim to approximate this economic optimum, unless their behaviour is dominated by extension advice based on the agronomic optimum application rate. Private input suppliers should therefore be linked with research organisation and local extension agencies to support effective extension services delivery, i.e. private AEAS should be incorporated in the whole system and their results regularly monitored by the public AEAS.

In view of the serious health impacts on rural and urban communities of hazardous products and practice, awareness-raising and education on pesticide use and dangers must go beyond conventional extension activities to reach women and children in particular.

Although it is important to improve the means of sustainable production and raise productivity levels, farmers need to commit to ways they can improve their returns on investments. AEAS must find practical ways of re-orienting their efforts to programs that support market linkage and good business management.

Women still have limited land tenure rights and lack of access to farm inputs, equipment, and information. Women tend to have lower levels of education than men, which reduce their power level and ability to make decisions within their families and societies. Therefore, raising the productivity and returns of women farmers requires extension services directly targeted to them with well-defined gender and social equity indicators right at the beginning, monitored over time. It is important to understand the different roles and responsibilities of all family members (women/men, girls/boys) in the production, transformation and marketing process. The social and cultural contexts that affect differential rights and access to and control over productive resources require particular attention when providing AEAS. Care should be taken to not reinforce gender stereotypes and household roles. For instance, men are not necessarily the predominant gender involved in cash crops, as great variability in control and co-operation has been found. Working with entire rural communities (i.e. not only women) and raising men’s awareness of the benefits of gender equality for agricultural production helps to overcome resistance to the social change that gender-equitable extension might entail.

Via provision of professional training on gender issues, advisers can become models for gender-sensitive and participatory communication within farming communities.

It is important to train AEAS staff in gender-differentiated approaches and methodologies, to ensure that demand-led processes consider gender and to provide gender-sensitive arrangements for extension and training services (location, time, availability of on-site childcare services, etc.)

Female extension workers are often in a better position to help female small-scale farmers adapt and adopt innovations. Incentives can help motivate women to work as agricultural advisers. Current extension workers can be role models for career plans of young girls. Supporting internships for female students from agricultural colleges in extension offices and agricultural departments have proven a successful way to increase the number of women advisers.

Strategic partnerships between women’s organizations and government institutions can help to improve women’s land and resource access rights.

A results-based extension programme planning would be desirable in which objectives would be about women and child nutrition and women’s access to resources or their increased roles in management and marketing besides household income and sustainability such as reduced use of chemical inputs.

A complementary way to assure social equity and ecologically sound AEAS is the power of united consumers who demand and are ready to pay for nutritious, ecologically sustainable and fairly produced and traded products. Sensitising consumers to the benefits of social and ecological products is a significant means to strengthen private sector involvement in AEAS that benefits to poor agricultural producers in an ecological way.