Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

In the Shadow of the Productivity Frontier

Increasing agricultural productivity through technological advancement is key to increasing food security. We have heard this many times within the development community, and this is very true.

Our innovative partnership with CIMMYT using drought-tolerant maize showcases the importance of drought-tolerant seeds, for example. The positive productivity effects of specially formulated hybrid seeds and fertilizers are clearly evidenced in a series of Assets and Market Access (AMA) Innovation Lab research projects bridging Mexico, Kenya and Tanzania.

However, ending hunger is not only about the newest, best technologies pushing out the agricultural productivity frontier. The most state-of-the-art inputs, devices and methods will have only minimal impact on food security if smallholder farmers cannot or will not adopt them.

There is a real gap between the yields that are technically possible and what smallholder farmers in the developing world typically achieve. To close this yield gap, researchers, policymakers and practitioners must prioritize shining light on that darkness hovering over the productivity frontier.  

“The AMA Innovation Lab has been working with researchers around the world to identify the barriers and test solutions to make sure farmers are actually adopting these technologies,” says Tara Steinmetz, assistant director of AMA Innovation Lab.

 “Science and social science have to innovate together to help farmers achieve what is possible and end hunger.”

The AMA Innovation Lab has a portfolio of research projects dedicated to casting light on the barriers that prevent farmers from adopting new technologies and to designing solutions to overcome these barriers.

One powerful deterrent to technology adoption is risk. Given the inherent risk in agriculture as a livelihood, farmers often hesitate to adopt personally untested inputs or technologies, especially if trying them requires taking on additional risk through a loan. In a recent Agrilinks blog highlighting several AMA Innovation Lab projects, Jennifer Cissé, senior risk advisor for the Bureau for Food Security, lays out some of the production risks farmers face and underscores why mitigating this risk will embolden these smallholders to give new innovations a chance.

“While these agricultural technologies and practices are critical to improving resilience by helping farmers mitigate production risk and increase productivity, there are many other strategies that can help farmers to mitigate and cope with production risk,” Cissé writes.

A newer understanding of how to close the yield gap also highlights the importance of behavioral or educational factors. For example, the trust of a community needs to be earned before new, unfamiliar seeds and fertilizers, planting methods or financial tools will be accepted and adopted. Social networks, information pathways and their possible gaps need to be better understood to capitalize on early adopters or the spillover effects of information sharing.

The yield gap can be particularly difficult to shift when new innovations do not actually benefit farmers. Specific soil and climate conditions, lack of access to markets and unprofitable high input prices all hinder a farmer’s ability to try out or truly take advantage of advancements in technology. Making sure technologies can be tailored to consider agro-ecological differences, or adapting new mechanisms for smallholders to collectively capture economies of scale to navigate local commercial systems and to remain a part of the value chain will help to relax constraints and allow the yield gap to close further.

The incorporation of the social sciences into a food security research strategy is essential to ensure that the investments in technology translate into farmer benefits.

Working together toward understanding what constraints fundamentally prevent farmers from adopting productive technologies that already exist will boost yields, contribute to self-sufficiency and resilience and ultimately make a difference to what food ends up on the family table.

For more information on the broad portfolio of social science research the AMA Innovation Lab is conducting to build resilience and further food security around the world, please visit our website: basis.ucdavis.edu.