Scotland’s academics are helping farmers in the developing world create a more sustainable future

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We have always been a nation where our sons – and daughters – ventured across the globe. In the past it was to make their fortunes, to fight in foreign battles and to educate; in one way or another leaving their mark in far-flung places.

That outward perspective continues today. From the rural economy, it is primarily our food and drink – whisky, salmon and our niche produce – that go abroad.

But it is also our expertise which is spreading internationally. Academics across Scotland regularly work in the developing world, helping farmers and producers adopt more robust practices.

The Institute of Aquaculture at Stirling University is one of those centres taking its expertise abroad. Its vision is to tackle global problems of food security, hunger and sustainability through aquaculture.

Edinburgh University’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, including the Roslin Institute, regularly works with overseas partners. The university is investing £35 million in a Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security to enhance the provision of targeted education, training, research, innovation and consulting.

Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) is also busy spreading our expertise in agriculture.Professor Andrew Barnes has just returned from Guinea Bissau where he is starting work on a project to help the west African country look at the issues surrounding its over-
dependence on cashew nuts.

“As an institute we’re called Scotland’s Rural College because we’re quite embedded within the Scottish economy, but we do look outward and I think we’ve found strength working with other organisations,” says Barnes, an economist who is professor of 
rural resource economics.

“Internationally, the big link we have is with the International Livestock Research 
Institute (ILRI) which is based mostly in Nairobi in Kenya.”

ILRI works to improve food security and reduce poverty in developing countries through research for better and more sustainable use of livestock. ILRI is a member of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, a global partnership of 15 centres working for a food-secure future.

In Guinea Bissau, Barnes’ research was looking at options for crop diversification in a country where 90 per cent of exports are from one crop: cashew nuts.

“The economy is unusual. In the 1990s there was an initiative to grow cashew nuts and now there is very little diversification in the economy,” he says.

“Guinea Bissau doesn’t process the cashew nuts; they get sold to India.” This means there is no value added to the crop where it is harvested. In addition, the cashew trees are now suffering from a weeping tree disease called gummosis which reduces nut yield and can ultimately kill the trees.

“Everywhere around the country we were noticing the disease was spreading, so we shared basic best management techniques to deal with the gummosis,” says Barnes.

There is also a “hunger gap” each year in Guinea Bissau when the food runs out because they don’t grow enough rice to feed themselves.

The networking project, which is funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund and the Academy of Medical Sciences, is the first step towards scoping out a larger project.

“Part of the reason we were out there is to work with Jean-Piaget Bissau University to develop a degree in agriculture,” explains Barnes.

“Learning basic agronomy would really help people understand how to protect their crops and how to grow different things which would help to support them.”

To show them what might be possible, staff from the African university will be visiting SRUC and its show farms during the week of the Royal Highland Show.

The SRUC team will then return to Guinea Bissau during the hunger gap in October. “We’ll collect more data and have more workshops to help us understand what are the main issues which stop people from diversifying. We’ll see if we have had an impact, but also offer information and support.”

Another project Barnes is embarking on is one helping the Columbian government in its war against cocaine farming. Coca, the raw material used in cocaine, has long been the major source of employment and cash for Colombia’s farmers who would otherwise struggle to support their families.

“There is big interest in Colombia because it is post-conflict (after the Farq rebels). There’s lots of land that has been under-managed and the government is trying to promote a green growth strategy.

“We are looking at specific crops, such as beans, which are very good because they offer nutrition, they are good for soil health and there is supply-chain value for them.

“Our partners at the Centre of International Tropical Agriculture in Colombia have been bio-fortifying the beans by adding zinc and iron.

“So from a nutritional perspective it’s very good and, as it is mostly the women and children who will plant and harvest the beans, it’s good from a gender perspective as well.”

The impact that SRUC’s international projects can have is illustrated by work Barnes has been involved in with the dairy industry in Malawi.

“The focus was on the dairy supply chain and how it impacts farmer’ incomes,” explains Barnes.

“Like many countries in east Africa, there is a lot of under-investment in processing technology so there is a lack of efficiency and so benefits can’t be passed on through the supply chain to give farmers higher prices.

“We gathered data and talked to producer co-operatives in the south of Malawi, which is the main dairy producing region,” says Barnes, whose work there was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

“We produced a number of things including a model of the Malawian supply chain.

“In developing countries, data is quite sparse so it took more than two years to develop relationships and collect the data before we could build the models to show how things like tax changes or foreign aid would flow through the economy and who would suffer the most. Then, in 2017, there was a proposal by the Malawi Revenue Authority to impose a 16 per cent tax on domestic milk production.

“The producer co-operatives used our model to prove that it was going to be borne disproportionately by the domestic dairy industry and, in particular, the farmers.

“The outcome has been that they have eliminated the tax proposal because it would have had such a huge effect on the low-
income farmers.”

There is an obvious sense of pride for Barnes in the fact that his expertise has had such a positive outcome. “That was a very real use of what we do as economists,” he says.

“If they had imposed the tax, it would have had quite an impact on standards of living.

“They are still poor farmers, but I think that’s something where we can say we had a real impact on smallholders’ livelihoods.

“That’s probably our role as economists and Malawi was a good example of where we can demonstrate – through our models and knowledge – that things have consequences which would negatively 
affect growth.”

This article appears in the SUMMER 2018 edition of Vision Scotland. A digital version is available here.