May 5, 2014

Commentary - Using Science to Drive Adoption of New Technologies

By Paul Weisenfeld
Paul Weisenfeld is vice president for Global Programs at RTI International.

In many ways, we’re experiencing a new golden era for agriculture and food security.  The challenges we face as a global community – to increase agricultural production for growing populations in the face of climate variability, and to address the food security needs of particularly vulnerable people – are significant, well known and well documented. 

For the first time in many years, however, we are blessed with sufficient global political will to tackle these challenges.  Governments, both in the developed and developing world, are focusing increased attention and resources on agricultural development as a tool for poverty reduction and eradicating hunger.  The private sector and multilateral institutions are ramping up investment in food and agriculture.  As we saw clearly with the Green Revolution, which demonstrated how technology-driven productivity improvements solved the age-old Malthusian problem of feeding the growing masses, investments in innovation are the precursors for great advances – and despite our challenges, a great reason for optimism. 

There are a wide range of technologies and agronomic practices being utilized, propagated, and touted as the answers to the world’s food security challenges.  These include no-till farming, irrigation (traditional, sprinkler and drip), integrated pest management, improved varieties of seeds for drought, heat or salinity tolerance (whether through traditional breeding or genetic engineering), fertilizer use efficiency, improved genetics for livestock and many others. 

There is a growing body of research on the effect of such technologies on crop and livestock productivity and some work on the willingness of farmers to adopt these new technologies – the International Food Policy Research Institute has done groundbreaking work with its 2014 publication of “Food Security in a World of Natural Resource Scarcity.”  But, the bulk of research energy and dollars has been expended on new technology development with insufficient attention to determining how best to scale them up. 

Without understanding how to drive widespread adoption we won’t be able to feed growing populations; unless we find effective ways to get smallholders to use these new technologies, woman and men farmers in large parts of Africa, South East Asia and Central America will remain trapped in subsistence farming, susceptible to starvation when drought, flood or extreme heat strikes. 

What is needed is a combination of the hard and soft sciences.  Developing better agricultural technologies requires a deep understanding of the natural sciences, whereas driving adoption of technologies is fundamentally a question of understanding what drives behavior change and markets.  I suggest a focus on three broad areas of research to dramatically increase uptake.

First, while there is growing research on the effectiveness of individual technologies to increase productivity in the face of climate variability, there is a need for more attention to which combination of technologies (both new and existing) work best in particular agro-ecological zones.  For instance, a number of vulnerable farmers in the Sahel, East and Southern Africa are intercropping tree species to improve soil fertility, but we need to understand better what other technologies combine best with this practice to respond to their particular challenges.

Second, we need better tools to quantify and disaggregate the barriers to adoption.  Farmers, particularly smallholder farmers, face capital constraints, lack of extension services, seasonal labor shortages, and constraints on availability of inputs.  And perhaps most importantly, smallholder farmers are generally and understandably reluctant to change their long-standing practices because the risk of failure can be catastrophic.  

Encouragingly, some NGOs are beginning to incorporate behavior change approaches and research, adapted from the public health field, to overcome these obstacles.  While examining these constraints in a qualitative sense represents an advance, we need to utilize the most scientifically rigorous methodologies to quantify the factors that influence adoption.  This way, we will be able to better assess the relative importance of different factors and inform programmatic approaches to increase adoption.

Third, we need to use sophisticated economic modeling to better understand the market dynamics that drive or inhibit adoption of technologies.  There has been research focused on evaluating new technologies from a technical perspective – do they work?  While important, this isn’t sufficient; the market plays a key role in success or failure.  Thus, we need economic modeling that looks at the full value chain, taking into account costs, market readiness, supply chains and partners for distribution. 

If we start with a market-led, design-centered approach – understanding the needs (expressed and latent) and model the markets ability to respond –we will best be able to guide programs to address market constraints to adoption.  And, as the global community is successful in helping farmers adopt new technologies, we should use sophisticated economic modeling at both macro and micro levels to understand more precisely the implications in terms of changes in prices of goods and the net impact on food security and sustainability as landowners shift land use, crop mix, input use, etc. in response to changing technologies.

Science is creating the tools to solve our food security challenges, but too many of them are sitting on the shelf.  Let’s use science to make sure these tools actually get used.  


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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