Research and Innovation in Agriculture for Sustained Food Security

Research and Innovation in Agriculture for Sustained Food Security

Research and innovation have contributed to agricultural prosperity since the early 20th century. M. B. Waite in 1915 noted the increased use of scientific knowledge and research as a source of information to improve and perfect agricultural methods in use at that time. It has not changed since then and science and technology continue to play a central role in increasing agricultural productivity.

One thing that dictates the need to have robust scientific research-driven agriculture is population growth. For a long time, agriculture has been purely practised on land. Even today, with such technologies as hydroponics, land use is still the largest agricultural base of production making it a critical resource.

But we should remember that land is a finite resource facing heightened pressure and competition from other interests such as urbanisation, industrial minerals, fuel production and many other important services and products that are key to human survival. This pressure and other extreme conditions, including fertile land encroachment, mean that unconventional agricultural methods should be implemented if all of the population is to be fed.

T. W. Schultz noted in 1964 that the man who farms as his forefathers did cannot produce much food no matter how rich the land or how hard he works. The farmer who has access to and knows how to use what science knows about soils, plants, animals, and machines can produce an abundance of food even though the land be poor. Nor need he work nearly so hard and long. He can produce so much that his brothers and some of his neighbours will move to town to earn their living.

Such is the power of research and innovation. A good case study that never stops to amaze me is the nation of Israel. Despite having only a mere 20% of its land mass naturally arable and more than half of it a desert, innovation has made it possible for the desert land to be turned into productive farming land.

This has led to enormous increases in agricultural production from the desert land to feed her people and also export to other countries. The Negev desert is producing food for people in Israel and across the globe. We start wondering then, how are they doing this despite also having a lot of challenges with water.

Drip irrigation has revolutionised farming for millions of farmers globally enabling them to increase their production substantially while ensuring mineral and water savings. Photo Courtesy of DripWorks.

Innovation in Irrigation 

As the population increases, land is not the only source of conflict, freshwater or even water in whatever form has also become a source of conflict as well. In agriculture, water makes up one of the most important factors of production. Conserving the resource thus becomes a necessity rather than an option.

Drip irrigation, a type of micro-irrigation, can save on water and nutrients by ensuring water and nutrients are supplied to the plants by dripping slowly from above the soil or buried below the surface. With modern technology, where farmers can monitor the nutrient and water levels in the different parts of the farms, precise irrigation has been made possible.

Even within the same farm, irrigation depends on the information the sensors relay ensuring that nutrients and water are saved and only used when and where necessary. The subsequent return is increased food production that is sustainable and reliable. No longer are farmers bound by the rainfall patterns.

Israel has reaped big from maximising the use of drip irrigation to optimise their land use and the returns it gains from it. Other countries can borrow a leaf, especially African countries, and make it possible to feed their people. Of course, they need to learn about managing the investments around a successful irrigation system as mega corruption thrives with mega investments.

Innovation in plant needs, soil and land use

Back to the Israel story. Prof Haim Rabinowitch, a professor of physiology, breeding and seed production at the Institute of Plant Sciences and Genetics in Agriculture at the University of Jerusalem noted the need for intimately understanding the environmental factors and how they affect the seeds and plants before planting them to increase their productivity. Picking up seeds made in a different place for a different destination is not a wise decision. There is no assurance that they will give high productivity at their destination as they could be doing at the point of origin.

 There is a need to understand the genetic composition of the seed and subsequently, the plants they will bear and how well they can thrive in that specific environment. For instance, a desert is a bit extreme in terms of temperatures and any plants therein must be able to sustain those temperatures.

Another thing is the nature of pests and diseases which vary from place to place. Researching and gaining a deeper understanding of the pests and diseases can enable breeding to produce seeds resistant to the disease attack as well as devising natural ways of controlling the pests especially where herbicides and acaricides use needs to be kept to the minimum.

A different innovation worth noting is replacing soil as the only medium of growing food. Hydroponics has made it possible to grow food without using soil. It has also enabled the advancement of vertical farms rather than horizontal farms only. The overarching advantage is a lot of food that can be grown within a small area of land given what counts is the vertical rather than horizontal distance – much as it is also important, especially for such livestock farming for instance.

Research and Innovation in Livestock Farming

Livestock farming ensures that people have enough supply of quality animal protein in the form of milk and meat products. The old farming methods have been replaced by precision livestock management where decisions are made according to the data from each animal or segment.

Animal health and welfare are of critical importance in this new data-centric management and ensure the responsible use of medicines. Animal stress levels are monitored together with their mineral requirements which means that their diet serves to counter any imbalances and keep the animals healthy.

All these approaches implemented well and managed properly, can guarantee food security for the increasing human population and offer a sustained solution for future requirements. And because innovation and research are continuous things, much more investments need to go into the fields to ensure an even more robust, sustainable and successful food-secure future.

Geoffrey Ndege

Geoffrey Ndege

Geoffrey Ndege is the Editor and topical contributor for the Daily Focus. He writes in the areas of Science, Manufacturing, Technology, Innovation, Governance, Management and International Emerging Issues. For featuring, promotions or support, reach out to us at info@dailyfocus.co.ke
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