Expectations of climate change keep agricultural researchers busy the world over. This is especially true for regions where impact is forecast to be high, including in Central Asia and the Caucasus (CAC). Additionally, food security and nutrition is becoming an international issue to address the needs of poor and vulnerable that requires collective actions at regional and national levels and an integrated approach towards enhancing well-being through improving agricultural productivity and improved resilient options. This is why, helped by international agricultural research organizations, scientists in CAC are coming up with and introducing innovations so that farmers can brace themselves. And judging by the number of new technologies and crop varieties developed in the region in recent years, it seems that research, and especially multi-disciplinary research, has a lot to offer to farmers.
However, all this matters if farmers know about and use innovations in the field. There are, of course, knowledge-sharing and capacity-building efforts within bigger agricultural development initiatives. But their reach and scope is often limited.
Making agricultural production more resilient requires a continued and systematic way to reach out to farmers. It is important to ensure farmers have their fingers on the pulse of agricultural research. In many countries, this is the remit of extension and advisory services or EAS for short, which play a significant role in agricultural development for food and nutrition security. EAS contribute to agricultural innovation by developing networks, organizing producers, facilitating access to credit, inputs and output services, convening innovation platforms, promoting gender equality, facilitating knowledge management, supporting adaptation to climate change and disseminating new knowledge through training and demonstrations to farmers. In CAC, however, linkages between research and farming are limited and fragmented, and EAS are still nascent. Moreover, there is often no legislation governing rural advisory services. The problem gets some episodic attention from donors and international organizations. With this aid, some non-governmental centers and enterprises on EAS have been set up to date. But all this lacks a systematic approach in most countries of the region.
This problem undermines the ability of farmers to access and introduce innovative technologies and practices on their farms, and thus deprives them of innovation-based opportunities to improve their productivity, profitability and livelihoods. In view of this challenge, the Central Asia and the Caucasus Association of Agricultural Research Institutes (CACAARI) and Central Asia and the Caucasus Forum for Rural Advisory Services (CAC-FRAS), an informal regional platform of the Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services (GFRAS), have decided to join forces and undertake collaborative actions towards strengthening rural advisory services systems in the region. The goals are to develop common approaches and coordinate efforts to strengthen agricultural innovation systems. To this end, in collaboration with the Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR), Modernizing Extension and Advisory Services (MEAS), the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and other partners, CACAARI and CAC-FRAS convened a joint Regional Conference on Rural Advisory Services (RAS) in Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic, from 17 to 21 November 2014. The conference brought together more than 100 agricultural scientists and practitioners, representatives of ministries, government and non-governmental organizations from the eight CAC countries. The purpose was to draw more attention to the development of a common approach to the planning of joint activities aimed at the development of RAS, current and expected problems caused by the impact of climate change on agro-ecosystems, the establishment and improvement of institutional mechanisms for the exchange of experience and knowledge. In particular participants shared and discussed the results of mapping RAS systems in different countries, as well as models of government policies and support for rural advisory services and their advantages and disadvantages. They also defined foresight mechanisms for agricultural development in the region.
Also, the conference held a side event, that is a CACAARI Steering Committee Meeting where important issues were discussed mainly a plan of work for the CACAARI activities in 2012-2014, presentation of the governance review insights, reviewing the memorandum of agreement and the Bishkek Declaration, member changes in the CACAARI Steering Committee and GCARD3 preparation.
These discussions prepared the ground for a comprehensive assessment of rural advisory services systems in the region. The conference laid the groundwork for inclusive multi-stakeholder policy dialogue. This dialogue will help to support the design of RAS policies and strategies that are conducive to food security and improved nutrition. The RAS policies and strategies will be built on in-depth country RAS assessments as conference follow-up actions. As part of the conference, the Bishkek Declaration1 was drawn up, which calls for a common approach to developing RAS systems in CAC countries. Participants also endorsed an initiative to conduct a systematic annual event equivalent of this conference, and outlined specific ways to strengthen further cooperation. It is hoped that this initiative will give a new lease of life to RAS systems in the region. After all, to make agricultural production sustainable, it is also necessary to make its key element, that is RAS systems, sustainable too. If farmers are kept up-to-date on innovations, they will know how to brace themselves for climate change-related challenges.
1 The Bishkek Declaration and other materials from the conference can be found at http://www.cacaari.org/en.php?/activities/sections/events