Research plays a decisive role in poverty reduction, the transition to sustainable development and the exchange of knowledge. Technological progress is just as relevant as social and political innovations. By sharing their expertise in global networks, scientists at universities, universities for applied sciences and research institutes make a substantial contribution to solving global problems.
Science and research contribute to sustainable solutions
Plant doctor: a career of the future
Switzerland supports the training of plant doctors to combat crop losses linked to diseases and pests.
A new type of stand holder has appeared at markets in rural communities. Sitting at a table with a magnifying glass and photos of diseased vegetables and insect pests, plant doctors advise farmers on their crops. When doctors examine an atrophied root or a deformed fruit, they are able to provide farmers with precise information about the diseases and how to prevent and treat them.
Plantwise, a programme led by CABI (Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International) and supported by the SDC, is the driving force behind this new type of doctor. Plantwise is present in 34 developing countries and is affiliated with a decentralised health network consisting of local clinics. It trains rural advisors to become plant doctors, which helps them diagnose plant diseases and identify insect and animal pests. In many countries, this is the first time that smallholder farmers have had access to personalised advice locally.
For each intervention, the plant doctor collects data relating to the pests or diseases, which is fed into a global database that all members of the network can access. In this way, members can obtain essential information which enables them to respond rapidly to the spread of pests and diseases that affect the main crops and therefore help reduce crop loss. Plantwise also collaborates with national and international laboratories to offer additional diagnostic support.
The programme has seen rapid growth. In 2011, a year after it was launched, 180 clinics were up and running, spread across 16 countries. Today, there are more than 1,800. In the span of a few years, more than 5,000 plant doctors have been trained, dispensing advice to 4.5 million smallholder farmers. In 2015, over 95% of the programme’s beneficiaries were satisfied with the services offered and around 80% of them had implemented the advice they received and noted a significant increase in their crop harvests.
On 9 March 2016, the Plantwise programme was awarded the prestigious 2015 DAC Prize by the OECD. This prize aims to “promote the scaling-up of innovations that address major development gaps.”
Organic production in the tropics
Can organic farming contribute to food security in the tropics? A research project co-funded by Switzerland has produced promising initial results.
Can organic agriculture as opposed to conventional cultivation methods also benefit farmers in tropical regions? The Swiss Research Institute of Organic Agriculture is exploring this question together with research institutes from partner countries in Africa and with the support of the SDC.
The research has involved a comparison of the organic and conventional cultivation of maize and various vegetables in Kenya since 2007. The researchers not only consider crop quality and size, they also look at how the different cultivation systems impact soil fertility.
The initial results are promising. The yields of organically-grown maize – an important basic foodstuff for the region that can also be marketed – are comparable with conventional systems following the transition to organic methods. As the input costs for organic products are lower than for conventional products, the same yields generate higher revenues for farmers. If they are able to sell the organic maize for a higher price, the switch is even more profitable. Soil fertility also significantly improved under the organic system.
In addition to research activities, researchers are also working with the affected farmers to develop practical cultivation methods that are adapted to the local conditions, for example, by producing compost. These methods result in higher yields and even better soil fertility. They therefore also have a positive impact on food security.
These scientifically substantiated results lend weight to the argument that ecologically sustainable and organic cultivation systems should be better integrated in national and international agricultural policies.