Water for Food

The luxury of choice

It seems like nothing brings out finger-pointing quite like discussing other people’s decisions.

Fortunately, today’s discussions at the 2012 Water for Food Conference about industry’s role in agriculture were honest and frank without being accusatory. Still, I was reminded that having choices at all is privilege often taken for granted.

Speakers on the Industry Leaders Panel, presented by Global Harvest Initiative, talked about their companies’ role in providing producers with choices. Without question, producers in the developed world have more options to decide how to run their farms than their counterparts in developing nations. And I must admit that until this session, I was unsure how industry fit into the discussion about how to help smallholder farmers. I wasn’t alone, it seems.

“There is a perception that large companies do not work with small farmers in developing nations, and it simply isn’t true,” John Soper of Pioneer Hi-Bred said.

Whether they’re developing new technology or improved crop varieties, Soper and panelists from Monsanto, Elanco and Pioneer Hi-Bred noted that they’re trying to offer choices and solutions to farmers of all income levels, in all locations.

Providing choice is a tricky thing to achieve, though. Technology comes with a price tag. And many intangibles – education, market access and government policies – either aid or stifle farmers’ choices.

As a woman raised in a farm family, I tend to empathize with whatever choice farmers believe are best for their operations, even if I don’t necessarily agree with them. It’s been said many times during the conference, but let me reiterate: Farmers are risk-averse by nature. In theory, a farmer might want to adopt more water-efficient irrigation technology, but it’s costly and has a difficult learning curve. Or maybe he’s interested in growing organic crops, but he holds back, knowing that if he fails, his family will lose a year’s income.

That’s why it’s critical for private companies, government agencies, researchers or nongovernmental organizations – basically, anyone trying to help producers – to understand farmers’ dilemmas. If they resist a new way of doing things, listen closely to why. What do their choices look like? What are their greatest barriers, real or perceived, to producing more food and doing it sustainably?

We all want farmers to grow crops efficiently and productively. But understanding their choices is the only way to provide solutions that work and are sustainable.

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