By WORKNEH AYALEW
FOOD and nutrition insecurity, and particularly seasonal scarcity of staples, have become a national challenge in PNG as a consequence of human population growing faster than that of agricultural output in recent years.
With 87% of the human population dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods, almost all of whom are smallholder farmers, it is imperative that national agricultural research and development efforts, aimed at enabling the smallholder agriculture sector, produce enough to meet family subsistence needs for food and agriculture, supply urban markets and contribute to export markets.
As the 2008 world development report of the World Bank maintains, the relatively large size of this sector also means that the most effective and direct way of improving food security and alleviating poverty in countries like PNG is to enhance productivity of this sector.
Similarly, the International Food Policy Research Institute (Ifpri) emphasises that only smallholder farmers can put an end to rural and peri-urban food insecurity and poverty.
Unfortunately, largely subsistent family crop and livestock farms are often considered traditional, old-fashioned and backward that resist efforts to improvement and modernisation, and that only large-scale intensive commercial farms are deemed to provide the only hope of modernising agriculture in countries like PNG.
Such erroneous notions tend to influence national policy decision-making for research and development.
The following highlights the strategic importance of research to improve smallholder family farms for overall national economic development, with particular reference to smallholder livestock-raising.
In the first instance, what are the key reasons for paying attention to smallholder livestock farmers?
*Small farms produce most of the food and some petty income to support livelihoods of the rural majority. They, therefore, provide direct realistic opportunities for improving rural livelihoods;
*The majority of livestock in the country, particularly pigs, chicken, ducks, goats and sheep, are maintained by smallholder subsistence farmers, and any desired improvement of these resources should focus on these small family farms;
*The aggregate of small sustained improvements achieved at individual farm level add up in economic significance at local, regional and national levels. They can be an engine for economic development;
*Small family farms are essentially an enormous reservoir of labour and skilled manpower that can be tapped into to enhance livestock production, which, otherwise, can potentially overwhelm urban areas through voluntary migration; and
*As is the case with coffee, cocoa, coconut and other export crops, smallholder livestock farms can also be a source of important export commodities such as meat, skins, hides and other products.
Agricultural research has the potential to deal with these issues and develop appropriate remedial technologies in collaboration with smallholder farmers, provided adequate human and material resources are made available to run these research projects. Furthermore, research can be effectively used to:
*Explore the yield potential of livestock and the ways and means to improve yields;
*Identify and investigate constraints to production;
*Develop new and improved ways of production and product handling;
*Adapt suitable technologies and innovations developed elsewhere;
*Develop more efficient practices of managing natural resources such as livestock, land, soil, water and human labour; and
*Explore strategies for managing current and arising emergencies such as outbreaks of diseases.
Various research tools can be used to ensure such research is based on the needs and priorities of smallholder farmers.
In fact, when smallholder farmers dominate the agriculture sector, it is reasonable to focus on the farmers’ indigenous practices with a view to strengthening traditional agriculture.
The history of rapidly-growing economies in Asia, with well-developed agriculture sectors, shows that assisting smallholder farmers to have access to improved agricultural practices can bring about lasting transformation of the sector.
Testing and refinement of farmers’ traditional practices and innovations lead to significant gains in productivity of smallholder subsistent agriculture until intensive commercial agriculture took a more prominent role.
International research and development institutions have advised that to promote growth in agricultural productivity over the longer term, developing countries like PNG should increase their investment in agricultural research and development and rural infrastructure and market access for poor farmers.
A key requirement for boosting productivity is to invest in research aimed at preserving and making better use of diverse indigenous genetic resources for crop and animal improvement.
In the face of recent global crisis on grain supplies, governments must renew their commitment to the development and dissemination of improved agricultural technologies as long-term solutions for ensuring that affordable food is available to poor consumers across society. Without strong growth in disposable incomes, imported food commodities will become unaffordable.
Technological innovation, in combination with policy reforms, has worked well in the past in transformating agriculture in many Asian countries.
According to the 2008 world development report, investment in agricultural research has paid off generously, emphasising that further investment is needed in research and development targeting the predominant smallholder farming sector.
The current level of annual public investment in research, science and technology in agriculture in PNG is only 0.5% of agricultural GDP of K4 billion, while the international recommended rate is 2.0%.
The prevailing global food crisis, the ominous threat of global climate change and pressure from globalisation all call for greater emphasis in long-term investment in agriculture to ensure sustainable agricultural development.
More public funding for research and rural development is needed to utilise the huge potential of the smallholder livestock sector to assure food security, increase incomes, generate employment and contribute to the rural and national economic development.