Farmers are not only our food producers, they are also guardians of our natural resources: soils, water, biodiversity and seeds. They are, in addition, innovators. Since the beginning of agriculture, farmers have had to change, adapt and create new ways of working the land, of dealing with difficult terrains and of enduring extreme climates and weather phenomena. Their survival and livelihoods depended on it so they found ways to make it work.

Family farms make up 90 percent of the world’s farms and produce over 80 percent of the world’s food. They also manage about 75 percent of farmland worldwide. Yet, paradoxically, they are often poor and food insecure themselves. Recognizing the successful innovations that farmers have already used and helping to spread them to other farmers is vital for our future of food and agriculture. We need to scale up innovations in agriculture to be able to feed a growing and increasingly urbanized population.

Innovation is not just good ideas, and it is much more than technology. Put simply, innovation is the process whereby individuals or organizations bring new or existing products, processes or ways of organization into use for the first time. Innovation in agriculture cuts across all dimensions of the production cycle along the entire value chain - from crop, forestry, fishery or livestock production to the management of inputs and resources to market access.

Here are five examples of how innovation is changing agriculture around the world:

1. In the Dominican Republic, the sterile insect technique (SIT) was applied to eradicate the Mediterranean fruit fly. In 2015, the outbreak of this pest forced the country to enact an immediate ban on its exports of fruits and vegetables, severely damaging the country’s second most important source of income. SIT is an innovative technique in which male insects are sterilized in labs. When released in the wild they mate with females but do not produce any offspring. Over time, this brings the insect population down significantly. By 2017, the country’s Mediterranean fruit fly population was officially eradicated. SIT is one of the most environmentally friendly control methods available, as it does not require the use of chemicals on the insect’s native habitat.

2. In Tanzania, where many rural people have difficulty earning a sustainable income, farmers are finding new uses for the indigenous Allanblackia tree, as its seed oil is rich in nutrients. Using this oil, farmers have developed new products, such as skin creams and lotions, which are lucrative in the market and have attracted international attention. The budding supply chains in the country are contributing to alleviating poverty and conserving biodiversity, giving local farmers a chance to increase their incomes through access to international markets.

 IITA Youth Agripreneurs in Nigeria use a smoking kiln to sell fresh catfish for a higher value
Youth Agripeneurs in Nigeria sell fresh catfish for a higher profit using a smoking kiln
Image: IITA
 With the eLocust3 system, FAO has been monitoring and forecasting possible threats to food production in Eritrea. The tool uses field observations made during surveying and transmits the data to the National Locust Centre in real-time via satellite
Using the eLocust3 system, the FAO monitors and predicts threats to food production in Eritrea
Image: FAO/Keith Cressman

3. In India, the government of Telanagana state implemented a new insurance scheme called Rythu Bandhu. This programme grants farmers in the state Rs. 4 000 (USD 55) per acre per season to support farm investments and purchase farm inputs. Rythu Bandhu staff oversee distribution of the funds, collect data on the uses and outcomes of the grants and develop a close relationship with the farmers to ensure successful crop planning. This scheme allows farmers to escape cycles of debt and poverty and establish sustainable and lucrative agricultural initiatives.

4. Globally, a mobile app called eLocust3 is being used to monitor and quickly detect one of the most dangerous migratory pest species in the world, the desert locust. The app combines the latest advances in information, communication and satellite technologies into a unified monitoring and early warning system. It has contributed significantly to a decline in the duration, severity and frequency of devastating desert locust plagues in Africa and Asia.

5. Another example is an artificial intelligence platform, Agripredict, started by a company in Zambia, which was also the winner at the 2018 #HackAgainstHunger competition in Rwanda. It uses a simple photo from a phone to detect the presence of pests or diseases. It can also forecast the probability of invasions by pests, such as the Fall Armyworm, and predict the possibility of adverse weather patterns such as drought, floods and cold fronts.

 FAO and its partners are using drones to assess where agricultural systems are at particular risk from natural disasters.
The use of drones in agriculture is increasingly common to assess risks
Image: Knoell Marketing/Unsplash

Innovation for a #ZeroHunger world

Every year we are demanding more and more out of our natural resources. The number of hungry people is increasing and world’s population is growing. In this setting, innovation in agriculture is critical to help family farmers use resources in better and more efficient ways.

FAO is hosting an International Symposium on Agricultural Innovation for Family Farmers to prompt collective actions and increase the understanding of what is needed to support innovation. The symposium will help stakeholders and decision-makers form new partnerships, exchange knowledge and seek out opportunities for scaling up agricultural innovations.

We need to act collectively to remove the constraints (technological, social, organizational, policy, or otherwise) that stifle the capacity of family farmers to innovate, while also encouraging the exchange of good agricultural practices, products and tools. Innovation is one of our best tools for creating a #ZeroHunger world.