Farmer to farmer extension services: rethinking knowledge to feed the hungry

By Ana Benoliel Coutinho

Farmer to farmer extension services: rethinking knowledge to feed the hungry

Extension and advisory services in agriculture help to provide technical advice to farmers and drive innovation for better food and agriculture. Agroecology which, among other benefits, recognizes and supports farmer-to-farmer knowledge systems, is an innovation that has been gaining attention among farmers, researchers, and government bodies. It has also been supported by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations which recently held an e-discussion and webinar about extension services for agroecology. One of the cases presented during the webinar showed how such systems helped to address a severe food crisis in Cuba, thus emphasizing the importance of farmers’ knowledge that is anchored in traditions and culture and adapted to local reality.

Extension and advisory services in agriculture

While extension, in general, refers to an informal educational process, extension services in agriculture describe the technical advice offered to farmers that often comes from research or government bodies which helps to spread new ideas for better production and innovation in agriculture.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) works to create an enabling environment for extension and advisory services (EAS) for better food and better agriculture. In this context, FAO hosted an e-discussion and a webinar on EAS for agroecology based on a recent FAO publication on EAS promoting agroecological transition:

“Agroecology as an inclusive family of approaches is really a major pathway to the transformation that we need in our broken food system in the face of challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss, food insecurity, malnutrition. We need our agriculture to be regenerative for ecosystems, but also societies. Such transitions require significant changes in extension and advisory services,” said Anne-Sophie Poisot, from Plant Production and Protection Division FAO during the webinar.

Anne-Sophie went on to explain that, by being more knowledge-intensive rather than technology-based, agroecology requires locally adapted practices and management rather than a transfer of key technologies. It is not about recommendations or direct advice. It is first and foremost about understanding the agroecosystem functioning, putting in the basic science, “so that farmers can make their own decisions”.

See also: Increased autonomy to improve farmers’ well-being and food production in France

Innovations driven by farmers

According to Anne-Sophie, many agroecological innovations have been spearheaded by farmers themselves, communities and NGOs and not necessarily by governments or research systems. This somewhat challenges the place farmers are given in extension and advisory services. She emphasizes that these services should be open to being educated by farmers in order to learn from them. Although research and the private sector are extremely important, participatory approaches need to be encouraged and developed.

“We need multiple actors working together and multiple approaches. Researchers are extremely important in these changes. We need them to work together with extension and advisory services in participatory action research, but also to accept and legitimise “farmer to farmer” extension and innovation,” she added.

There are various examples of how this works in practice. During the online event, cases were presented from four different regions: Europe, Africa, Latin America and Asia.

Farmer-to-farmer knowledge addressing food crisis in Cuba

Dr Peter Rosset, Professor of Agroecology at the ECOSUR Advanced Studies Institute in Chiapas, Mexico, presented a case from Cuba that involved peasant to peasant methodologies as a form of extension. According to the researcher:

“Peasant to peasant (or farmer to farmer) brings to mind the methodology for the horizontal transmission of technical and productive knowledge. This is a participatory methodology…; it is a process in which farmers are co-producers of knowledge through the exchange of ideas, experiences, and innovations in agroecological production.”

Farmer to farmer or peasant to peasant (PtP) is a “pedagogy of experience or pedagogy of the example” where producer families visit each other in order to observe the agroecological solutions that they can use for common problems (Fig.1). Such visits and exchanges allow them to learn from each other and strengthen their knowledge.

Fig.1. Farmers helping each other so that they can help themselves to find solutions. Source: Food First

Although this methodology has its roots in México, Guatemala and Nicaragua, it was in Cuba that it became part of transformation on a national scale. Tightly linked to the profound crisis in the food and agriculture sector at the beginning of the 90s, agroecology became a national strategy to achieve food security in complicated geopolitical circumstances. Back then, the fall of socialism “meant for Cuba the sudden loss of 85% of its export markets and an end to its supply of oil, machinery, agricultural inputs, and foodstuffs at subsidized prices”. Highly dependent on agricultural inputs for large-scale agricultural production, the country came to a standstill which forced it to undergo a speedy reconversion of its agricultural production model.

According to Dr. Rosset, Cuba is an example where PtP methodology demonstrated how important it is for farmers and food security. The Cuban National Small Farmers Association (ANAP) “discovered” the PtP in 1996 and, together with other actors including government institutions, extension services, NGOs and research centres, led the transition to small-scale farming anchored in traditional peasant knowledge and technologies which existed prior to the introduction of conventional model and inputs.

Starting with one small project, the agroecological adaptation and transformation was extended as a program to Cuba’s central region and later became a nationwide mass movement to restore farmers’ knowledge system. For instance, in 1996 about 8,000 urban gardens were developed along agroecological principles (chemical-free, diversified farms recycling and emphasizing the use of local resources) providing food to urban populations amounting to 8,500 tons of agricultural produce, 3,650 tons of meat, and 7.5 million eggs. Urban agroecology played a key role in ensuring food and nutrition security as approximately 80% of the Cuban population lives in urban areas. It is with the support from the Ministry of Agriculture, local governments, associations and research institutes that these farms and gardens sprouted up all over the country. In fact, all institutions, including ministries and schools were encouraged to transform their lawns into gardens for self-provisioning. Moreover, due to the urban agriculture movement, over 300,000 jobs were created, tens of thousands of farmers, technicians, and government officials were trained in agroecology through formal training and informal meetings and exchanges were introduced including in collaboration with the ANAP.

“Agroecology depends on local reality which requires activating farmers’ knowledge and creativity. The Green Revolution caused a massive loss of this knowledge, made farmers lose creativity and come to depend on outside knowledge from the government and extension services. And this is the problem,” explained Dr. Rosset.

According to the researcher, in every territory, it is possible to find an agroecological family. To establish that fact, within the peasant organization a questionnaire process is undertaken to create an inventory of which peasant families in the territory implement which practices. Some incorporate crop residues, some crop rotation, intercropping, contour planning, agroforestry, etc. They also document which practices they do well and find which families have production problems that can be addressed by these practices, and then organise a horizontal exchange where those who have the problems visit and learn from those who have the practices.

“Good knowledge on how to solve most problems exists in most communities and territories. So, we must find the pieces of that knowledge and put it back together to recreate collective knowledge at the community level. And this is best done by the farmers’ organizations,” concluded Dr. Rosset.