The National Agricultural Research Forum -reflections on the future of agricultural research in South Africa

Last week i attended the National Agricultural Research Forum (NARF) annual meeting in Pretoria.  This is an annual governmental meeting open to all food stakeholders that aims to set research priorities for the year and ahead and work towards an integrated future of agri/cultural research in South Africa. Given the project’s interest in the changes that agricultural research and knowledge has undergone over the decades this meeting was an opportunity to understand better government’s interface with agricultural research and various stakeholders in the Research and Development (R&D) system in South Africa. It was also an opportunity to explore how agriculture and the agricultural research that supports it is being imagined for the future in South Africa and what kinds of knowledge are being prioritised. Over the last months in the field i have been interested in how ecological knowledge in agriculture is changing and exploring the theme of agri/cultural deskilling linked to the introduction of new seed technologies developed often out of context of where they are used and with little or no dialogue with farmers. I have been exploring this in the context of small scale maize agri/cultures as well as in the R&D system in South Africa. I have also been interested in the connections and disconnections  between science , research, innovation and small-scale farmers. The meeting allowed a space to explore how farming knowledge, especially that of small scale farmers was being prioritised or not on a national level.

The meeting started off with a keynote address by the Director General for the Department of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries Mr.M Mlengana. He made reference to the Vision 2030 National Development Strategy as being the base document for the agricultural vision of South Africa in the context of the wider goals of the country as well as the Sustainable Development Goals which guide this. The 2017/18 National Agricultural Development Strategic Plan provides a roadmap to implementing this vision. The 2008 National Research and Development Strategy provides the baseline for setting the priorities in research to support this. At the meeting there was a launch of an APEX Body which will fulfill the role of coordinating agricultural research going forward as well as build capacity and partnerships in this area. Previously this was managed by the National Agricultural Research Forum NARF which was developed in 2002 to “facilitate consensus and integrate coordination in the fields of research, development, and technology transfer to agriculture in order to enhance national economic growth, social welfare and environmental sustainability”.  In his talk the DG stressed the importance of “building an inclusive rural economy”, focusing on “research and innovation” and agriculture contributing to rural growth. He stressed the importance of science for agriculture in a changing global climate and the need for research that will “unpack uncertainties” that we will be faced with. While smallholder farmers are widely acknowledged and mentioned throughout the The 2017/18 National Agricultural Development Strategic Plan they feature less in the The 2008 National Research and Development Strategy.

Globally there is an increasing recognition that small scale farmers are vital actors in the current production and future of food production. In South Africa there appears to strong drive in Policy and related developmental programmes to bring small-scale farmers into monocrop based agricultures while fewer opportunities for small-scale farmers to boost their farming systems in a way that focuses on diversity and alternative agri/cultural models which incorporate the knowledge and skills of farmers. This seemed to be reflected at the meeting which focused a lot on scientific research and technology development for agricultural growth and poverty reduction without much mention of other knowledge holders being key collaborators for future goals. There also appears to be a focus on science and technology as the primary answer to agricultural challenges in the future, while there not a wide exploration of how these technologies may deeply impact systems of agri/culture.

Historically farmers have been the primary keepers and innovators of agricultural knowledge. This knowledge was gained from experience and skills passed down over generations through families and apprenticeships and based on a knowledge imbedded in particular landscapes and ecologies. However from the early 1900s this began to change and scientists began to assume authority over agricultural knowledge. This went hand in hand with an increasing drive to turn agricultural produce into commodities and raw materials. And in the hands of scientists and researchers – through hybridization, seeds would also become valuable commodities.  Scientists who initially relied on farmer knowledge such as in choosing which varieties to focus on in the development of hybrid maize came to dominate the research and development of seed. Agricultural research on maize seed has expanded and shifted over time in relation to political and economic imperatives. During this process the knowledge of small scale farmers has been increasingly sidelined and undervalued and small scale farmers have become increasingly recipients of knowledge and technologies. In her 1993 paper ‘Deskilled: Hybrid Corn and Farmers’ Work’ Deborah Fitzgerald argues that “hybrid corn was an agent by which farmers were effectively deskilled” in the United States. The project here in South Africa has been tracing the introduction of new seed technologies and exploring how social-ecological knowledge in relation to maize agri/cultures may being lost or changed because of the introduction of seed technologies (Hybrid first and then Genetically Modified varieties).  Small-scale farmers are holders of agricultural diversity in the way of seed that has been passed down generationally, and attached to this seed is a wealth of knowledge around growing it in relation to ecological systems. However, this is not always recognised and in many cases is threatened by harmonisation of seed laws, introduction of new varieties such as GM seed and hierarchical knowledge systems and development schemes which promote small scale farmers abandoning traditional varieties and taking up new seed varieties to be grown as monocrops.

I will in the next weeks spend more time exploring the Policy environment and how R&D is envisioned in this in relation to small-scale farming and how this related to current focus of agricultural research. While i have begun to interview a number of government officials and researchers on how small-scale farming is connected to the wider R&D system i would like to interview more stakeholders on how they envision smallholder framer knowledge being incorporated into research and development for the future of food.

 

Unravelling relationships in agricultural ecosystems

Image showing holes on maize leaves – on the left made by the invasive fall army worm and right by the native borer, chilo partellus

Over the past month I have travelled to Potchefstroom, Pretoria and Pongola for fieldwork. During this time I have been interviewing scientists and researchers involved in maize research, government employees involved in agriculture and small scale farmers who are growing GM, hybrid and traditional maize for household and some commercial use.

In my first week in Potchefstroom I was greeted by the reality of the army worm situation  currently facing farmers and the maize agriculture system in South Africa. This is a very significant and worrying event as this species now confirmed to be the Fall Army worm  (Spodoptera frugiperda) has never been seen in South Africa before its recent discovery in the Limpopo province in Early February 2017. This species native to eastern and central North America and South America has only recently begun being sighted on the African continent – The first sighting was in 2016 when it was reported in Nigeria and has since moved South. It has a rapid lifecycle and can quickly multiply if not dealt with. Over the past weeks in South Africa, the FAW has been found in Limpopo and Mpumalanga and parts of Northwest, Gauteng, Free State, the Northern Cape and KZN provinces. It is suspected that the pest may have come into the country with grain imported due to low regional yields following the severe drought over the past two years. Biowatch has drawn a connection between drought periods and the invasion of army worms in the past. However it is not known exactly how it came into the country.

The emergence FAW, a new species in the region offers an opportunity to explore the response of the agricultural research system in South Africa and how this threat is responded to. A multispecies perspective provides a lens through which to track the response to this pest and through this think about changing social – ecological relationships within systems of agri/culture.

The  Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) has  initiated a pest action group.  The group brings together members  from  provincial departments, researchers, several producers’ associations and industries whom might be affected by the presence of the Fall worm.

Within such an emergency situation there is a great pressure for experts to come up with solutions quickly. There has been talk of instating an “emergency registration of agricultural chemicals “. The minister of Agriculture Minister Senzeni Zokwana stated that “Luckily, with respect to the worms we are dealing with, we already identified a number of tools and chemicals that are already registered amongst various crops… We are confident that if growers and farmers use those products, the products would be used safely.” A Farmer’s weekly article has claimed that Bt maize may be less susceptible to the FAW. The approaches being put forward in media bring into question what solutions that are not reliant on chemicals are being investigated and if such R&D capacity exists in South Africa.

It is also a chance to think about knowledge in relation to agricultural systems in South Africa. In recent interviews with scientists I have been told how farmers and many technicians responsible for supporting farmers have little knowledge about ecological systems and insect ecology of agricultural systems. This has been attributed by some to changing focuses of research and the use of pesticides or Bt varieties as a”silver bullet” solutions to pest management.  The Minister of Agriculture explains that Diagnostic support would be increased to help with the identification of the pest. This comes after many farmers have been calling in to find out if the caterpillars they are witnessing are in fact FAW.

Interestingly the emergence of the FAW has set into motion the importation of pheromone traps which will be used determine the

image showing holes in maize leaves – on the left holes made by the Fall Army worm and holes on the right made by the native chilo partellusextent of the spread and the specific strain of FAW present in South Africa. This technique has not been used since the 1980s when light traps were used to track stem borer flight patterns when it was understood as a necessary part of pest management.  Situations such as the emergence of the fall worm bring into question the relationships between ecological systems, knowledge and agriculture. What kinds of precarious ecologies we may be contributing to building through the use of industrial farming techniques and technologies while at the same time becoming more and more disconnected from agro-ecological knowledge.

The small scale farmers I was visiting in Northern KwaZulu Natal have yet to experience the FAW and hopefully it will not reach this region. However the diversity of farmer growing methods in the region brings into question what farmers using traditional, organic or agroecological methods (who are not  already growing bt maize or using pesticides) might do. As it is clear that the dominant approach and approach recommended by authorities and experts in the field for dealing with the FAW will be the use of  pesticides (perhaps warranted in an emergency situation?).

Small-scale farmers that I have spoken to who do not use pesticides or Bt maize have described how they have stem-borer but that it usually does not significantly impact on yields or maize quality and this varies depending on when maize is planted. They use various techniques for keeping these borers under control such as ash, placed in the centre of germinating crops, to burning damaged stems. Smallholder farmers who are using traditional seed and more agroecological methods could potentially find themselves in a difficult situation and will be in need of assistance and research in grappling with this new species. There is a need for research that moves beyond a reliance on anymore chemicals which also bring into question the already pressing question of resistance.