Transforming Extension and Advisory Services to Promote Agroecology

Rasheed Sulaiman V, CoSAI Commissioner and Co-Chair of Working Group 3: Pathways for Innovation in Sustainable Agriculture Intensification; Director, Centre for Research on Innovation and Science Policy (CRISP), India, and a member of the GFRAS Board has written a Blog Post for the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture Intensification (CoSAI), on the importance of Agroecology in RAS.

His text, initially made available on CoSAI's website, is also reproduced here:

As the need for new approaches to sustainable agriculture increases, agroecological approaches have gained prominence in scientific, agricultural and political discourse. Agroecology is fundamentally different from other approaches to sustainable development in that it focuses on localized and bottom-up solutions, ensuring that farmers, their communities and their local knowledge are fully integrated in improving agricultural sustainability. This adaptable and flexible approach suggests ways to not only promote efficient and resilient agricultural systems, but to ensure food security and healthy diets, and support the conservation and restoration of biodiversity – thereby fulfilling the three pillars for integrated land use and food systems.

Promoting agroecology using extension and advisory services

One way to encourage the adoption of agroecology is with Extension and Advisory Services (EAS). EAS, also known as Rural Advisory Services, refer to all the different activities that provide farmers and other people living and working in rural settings with the information and services they need to increase agricultural productivity. However, while there is plenty of evidence for the importance of EAS in promoting good agricultural practices, they are not designed to support farmers to adopt sustainable agricultural practices like agroecology, which need the development of local solutions, horizontal learning and community action. Do EAS have the capacity to do this?

To date, the record of EAS in promoting sustainable agricultural practices has generally been poor. This is due to a lack of well-trained field staff, as well as the resources needed to provide advice to millions of small and marginal farmers. Specifically, there are three other fundamental challenges that prevent EAS from promoting agroecology effectively.

Firstly, EAS are designed to educate farmers about new technologies developed by public agricultural research organizations, which have not been the main source of knowledge about agroecology.

Secondly, EAS currently have a limited ability to generate context-specific and locally relevant solutions through the blending of local and expert knowledge. The way research and extension services are run will need to change if they are to give farmers a greater say in how research questions and solutions are developed.

Thirdly, many of these new challenges can only be addressed with new forms of interaction, organization and agreement between a range of actors. In addition to equipping EAS providers with more political, financial and policy support, the institutions and governance of EAS require transformation so that they can better respond to the needs of farmers and other stakeholders.

Changes needed within EAS to promote agroecology

Overcoming these challenges requires change across all aspects of EAS. In order to provide locally specific solutions, EAS need to start blending local farming insights with expert knowledge. The implementation of these localized solutions can be further helped by hiring EAS extension workers from local communities – people who understand the local conditions and are accountable to farmer groups – rather than from EAS providers. Advances in digital technology will help farmers and workers generate and share valuable data on local pest and disease dynamics. And, perhaps most importantly, the overall aim of EAS needs to shift from simply increasing productivity to improving agricultural sustainability and resilience, so that farms can remain healthy and productive for many years to come.

To make these changes, EAS should partner with ongoing initiatives promoting agroecology, such as civil society organizations and farmer networks. The Pathways for Innovation Study commissioned by CoSAI is currently investigating how practitioners and investors can better achieve the economic, environmental and social objectives of sustainable agricultural intensification, and is expected to generate some very pertinent lessons on the factors that help to scale up sustainable agriculture – lessons which could be important for EAS and agroecology. The Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services (GFRAS) community, comprising regional and country platforms, could play a major role in helping EAS support and promote agroecology through advocacy, generating lessons and promoting knowledge exchange among EAS providers.

The promotion of agroecology is not without its challenges. For instance, conventional approaches to measuring farm productivity through yield or income from a single crop are not suited to measure agroecological practices. Moreover, the specificity of agroecological practices may make them difficult to transfer between farmers through standard research and extension approaches. Nevertheless, by proactively developing pathways for embracing agroecology, EAS can be an important part of the solution in addressing agricultural sustainability.