In Focus

From Seeds to Satellites: Exploring the Cutting Edge of Agricultural Research

In Pakistan, a farmer uses a cattle-driven water pump.
In Pakistan, a farmer uses a cattle-driven water pump. USAID is working with its partners to come up with the most innovative and water-efficient irrigation techniques.
Faseeh Shams, IWMI

Dipali Biswas is part of a women’s farming group in Shovna, Bangladesh. These female farmers struggle to earn an income during Bangladesh’s dry season, when water is scarce and soil is dry and salty.

The women discovered that by ending the rice harvest earlier, they could bypass salt damage. “If the rice crop is harvested earlier, there is still water in the soil. Wheat and maize will benefit from this. Salt will come up less…Our crops will grow well,” said Dipali.

But this would require some technical assistance. The USAID-funded Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia (CSISA)––a program that harnesses innovation to make cereal farming more efficient—introduced the women to a shorter-duration rice crop and taught them resource-saving farming techniques. Shovna’s women learned they could help soil retain moisture while saving time, money, and water by not fully plowing their land, leav­ing some straw to shield soil from the drying rays of the sun.  This method, called strip tillage, has helped men and women in Shovna to provide for their families. The CSISA program is part of Feed the Future, the U.S. Government’s global hunger and food security initiative, which is spearheaded by USAID’s Bureau for Food Security.

Focusing on Food

Never has there been a more urgent need for simple water-saving agricultural solutions. Over 70 percent of all freshwater is used for agriculture and this amount could increase by up to 19 percent by 2050. Every day, nearly 870 million people go to bed hungry. Meanwhile, water resources are dwindling and by 2025, two thirds of the world could be living in water-stressed conditions.

“Water is very, very central to our work to feed the hungry,” said Dr. Moffatt Ngugi, Program Analyst for Climate Change and Agriculture at the USAID Bureau of Food Se­curity. “We are looking to increase productivity with sound water management, focusing on smallholder farmers and small-scale infrastructure.”

USAID elaborated on this link between water and food in its first-ever Water and Devel­opment Strategy, which sets the agenda for its water programming from 2013 to 2018. One of the two strategic objectives emphasized in the Strategy is to “manage water for agriculture sustainably and more productively to enhance food security.”

The Strategy’s food security goals complement the goals of Feed the Future. Two areas are spotlighted for more focus: rainfed and irrigated agriculture.

Research will be a key component to the success of water for food programs. The Con­sultative Group on International Agricultural Research, or CGIAR, is a partner in devel­oping solutions to food insecurity. The CGIAR is a global agricultural research consortium funded collec­tively by a group of partners, includ­ing USAID. By working with the CGIAR, USAID, through Feed the Future, harnesses scientific research to feed the world’s hungry.

Rainfed Solutions

Rainfed agriculture—farming that relies on naturally occurring rainfall to water crops—has been widely practiced for generations. But new innovations can help farmers deal with 21st century problems caused by climate change such as increased rainfall variability, increased soil des­iccation, and run-off.

Globally, nearly 80 percent of ag­ricultural land is rainfed, and these rainfed production systems provide 62 percent of the food in the world. In sub-Saharan Africa almost 95 per­cent of cultivated land is rainfed.

Unfortunately, climate change’s strong toll is only expected to esca­late. Rainfed yields are expected to decline by up to 50 percent by 2020. “In many places we work, particularly South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, rainfall is expected to become much more erratic,” said Dr.  Tracy Powell, International Agricultural Research Advisor at the USAID Bureau for Food Security.

For farmers relying on rain, reli­able, up-to-date information about upcoming climate events is a game-changer because it enables them to knowledgably plan their harvests. Unfortunately, the farmers in remote rural areas who stand to benefit most from this information have the least access to it.

But USAID is changing that.  Origi­nally launched in 1997 by the African Center of Meteorological Applica­tions for Development with support from USAID’s Office of U.S.  Foreign Disaster Assistance and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminis­tration, RANET (Radio and Internet Technologies for the Communication of Weather and Climate Informa­tion for Rural Development) provides farmers with the information needed for them to adapt to the effects of climate change. RANET, which was initiated in Africa and is now expand­ing to Asia and the Pacific, works with national weather stations to get information about growing condi­tions to farmers in remote and rural areas.  RANET produces a constantly streaming digital radio satellite broad­cast that provides reports and obser­vations on climate issues along with hydro-meteorological satellite data. In addition, RANET provides train­ing about climate and weather and improves the Internet connectivity of African meteorological services.  Now, even illiterate farmers in rural villages can make decisions based on advanced climate research.

But information alone is no match against extreme climate events like droughts and floods.  Rashid Said Mpinga of Morogoro, Tanzania, who has been a maize farmer for more than 50 years, was one of many who watched helplessly as rainfall became more irregular and his soil became more infertile. The seeds he was using simply could not flour­ish in the increasingly inhospitable climate. “We needed varieties that [could] cope with these changes,” he said.  “Without good quality maize seed, you cannot earn enough. You cannot have life!”

Under Feed the Future, USAID and the CGIAR work together to develop new crops that can flourish in even the most extreme circumstances. They developed “scuba rice,” flood-tolerant rice that has boosted yields in flood-prone South Asia.  And in drought-prone sub-Saharan Africa, the USAID-funded CGIAR Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa Initiative used conventional breeding to devel­op over 100 drought-tolerant maize varieties and hybrids. Each variety is tailored toward local needs and boasts traits including superior cooking quality, superior flour milling qual­ity, and resistance to local diseases. In addition to producing these new crops, the project held capacity build­ing events and seed policy workshops for maize breeders, technicians, seed company owners and employees, extension workers, non-govern­mental organizations, and farmer groups.

Over 2 million small­holder farmers have already benefitted from the award-win­ning maize.  Rashid, for one, is happy with his increased yields and income. He and his neighbor even an­ticipate a surplus this season. “We'll be assured of food and an income when we sell the extra maize, and will be able to send our children to school,” said Rashid’s neighbor Pangras Tairo.

Irrigation Innovations

While rainfed agriculture is the most common form of farming, irrigated agriculture—agriculture that relies on man-made systems such as res­ervoirs, canals, pumps, and pipes to bring water to crops—can be two to four times more productive than rainfed agriculture.

AgWater Solutions is a CGIAR and Bill & Melinda Gates Founda­tion project that researches sustain­able ways to spread irrigation. “We identify innovative opportunities in agricultural water management that have a high potential to improve food security and the livelihoods of small­holder farmers,” said Dr.  Meredith Giordano, Co-Project Manager of AgWater Solutions.

Through its research, AgWater Solutions found that simple ir­rigation schemes like motor pumps and rainwater harvesting could impact over 1 billion people in sub- Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia alone, generating about $80 billion dollars of household income per year for them.

Through AgWater Solutions, the USAID Mission in Ethiopia introduced irrigation to rural Ethio­pia, where droughts and dry spells are common but only six percent of land is irrigated.

Researchers there found that manual well drilling, which en­ables farmers to use simple inexpen­sive pumps to access groundwater, would be a great boon to Ethiopia’s smallholder farmers.

Through the project, farmers invest in the cost of drilling the well (about $156) and unemployed laborers and farmers are paid to drill the wells, which are up to 28 meters deep.  In the first year, the farmers who in­vested made back more than twice their initial stake.  Over 450 wells have been drilled in Ethiopia, and demand shows no sign of slowing.  The Government of Ethiopia sup­ports the initiative, which it sees as an effective and scalable way to boost the incomes of smallholder farmers.

While revitalizing irrigation promotes food security and increases incomes, there are downsides to it.  Irrigation is costlier and can lead to the deple­tion of groundwater and other envi­ronmental costs.  These costs can be reduced by adopting water-efficient irrigation systems, improving the gov­ernance of water resources, and using more water-efficient crops.  In fact, half of the increased projected water demand could be met by 2025 by in­creasing the efficiency of irrigation.

In South Asia, CSISA, the project that helped Dipali, works to increase the efficiency of cereal irrigation in Nepal, India, Bangladesh, and Paki­stan.  CSISA is a CGIAR project funded by USAID through Feed the Future as well as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

CSISA researches water-saving, pro­ductivity-enhancing techniques like laser land leveling—precisely leveling land using laser systems—that facili­tate better water coverage and reduce water and nitrogen requirements. CSISA researchers also develop higher-yielding, stress-tolerant, and disease-, heat-, and insect-resistant varieties of rice, wheat, and maize. Finally, CSISA nurtures a new genera­tion of scientists and agronomists to ensure irrigation technology remains on the cutting-edge for generations.

But it doesn’t stop at research and development. CSISA works with farmers to ensure they have access to—and the knowledge to use—the technologies it develops. The project also fosters an improved policy en­vironment by engaging policymakers in field visits, seminars, workshops, and dialogues about water use in agri­culture. CSISA is slated to help over six million smallholder farmers pro­duce at least five million tons of food and add $1.5 billion to the economy per year.

Now, more and more farmers around the globe are investing in life-changing water-saving technolo­gies. Farmer and CSISA beneficiary Saranjeet Singh of Matiala village in India recounted, “We used to spend so much time and resources irrigating the high points of the field.” After some initial trepidation, Saranjeet and his neighbors invested in new tech­nology and happily report increased yields. “Even I was not convinced at first,” he recalled. “Why should I spend so much money? Then I did [laser land leveling] on my field.  It is very profitable…The best method to save water.”

C.  Zeilberger

More Information

USAID Water and Development Strategy 2013-2018

CGIAR website

Feed the Future