2013 GAP Report® – [2] Investments in Research, Science and Technology

In the following case studies, specific investments in research, science and technology lay the foundation for strategically targeted resources, improved productivity, reduced loss and waste and a healthier, safer food supply.


The Lower Flint River Basin of Georgia is one of the most diverse and ecologically rich river systems in the southeastern United States. It is also a region where agricultural intensification has increased in the past decades, with farmers producing a variety of crops, including sweet corn, cotton, peanuts and pecans worth more than $2 billion in revenue annually. The future productivity of the region is challenged by multi-year droughts and sustained water use from both underground aquifers and the

Flint River. To improve the efficiency of agricultural water use and to move innovative irrigation and conservation practices from the research laboratory to the field, a coalition of farmers, researchers, conservationists and private companies joined together in the Flint River Partnership Initiative.

The Flint River Partnership uses state-of-the art research and technology to make agriculture more precise and to grow more ‘crop per drop,’ and serves as an excellent model of collaboration.44 It was launched in 2004 by The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Flint River Soil and Water Conservation District. Additional partners include the University of Georgia and the University of Florida, along with regional farmers and companies, such as Coca-Cola and IBM. IBM is working with the partnership to develop new tools for agricultural conservation, such as Deep Thunder, an advanced weather prediction service, which will soon help farmers in the Flint River Basin better schedule operations based on 72-hour forecasts of weather events at a one kilometer resolution.

The partnership began by extending newly adapted irrigation methods and technologies to fields, such as variable rate irrigation systems that can adjust the amount of water applied to different places depending on soil needs and weather conditions. This system saves an average of 15 percent water use each year and can be adapted to most center-pivot irrigation systems worldwide.45

To make variable rate irrigation extremely precise, farmers install sensor probes in the soil to monitor moisture levels. Information from these sensors is relayed instantaneously to home computers where the farmer can analyze the data to determine where and when to apply water. Plans are underway for using the probes to measure nutrients and soil acidity. The partnership is working with IBM to integrate data from tractors, such as fuel usage and the types and amount of seed applied, providing additional precision to the application of farm inputs to reduce cost and energy use.

Combined with other high yielding drought-tolerant seeds and practices such as conservation tillage, (which uses cover crops, no-till systems and crop rotations), and high yielding, drought-tolerant seeds, these advanced irrigation technologies have the potential to save billions of gallons of water globally in the decades to come.


Faculty at the University of Nebraska (USA) and Wageningen University (Netherlands) are leading an effort to develop a Global Yield Gap Atlas (GYGA), an advanced modeling and mapping tool to quantify how much additional food can be produced in a particular location by closing the gap between today’s average farm yield and the yield potential, assuming optimal management.46 Governments, private sector and donors need this information to identify research priorities, choose the best technologies to improve productivity in a particular location and develop investment strategies for expanding agribusiness, roads and infrastructure. Supported by funding from the Daugherty Water for Food Institute, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, USAID and others, scientists have started the GYGA analysis in 19 countries in Africa, Asia, America, the Middle East and Oceania.

In each country, local agronomists are obtaining detailed information on climate, soil, cropping systems and current average farm yields in the major areas for crop production. This information is used to estimate (1) the yield potential level, which represents the crop yield solely determined by weather conditions, genetics and planting date, and (2) the actual farm yield level, in which yields are also constrained by other factors, such as nutrients and incidence of pathogens, insect pests and weeds. The difference between yield potential and actual farm yield is called the “yield gap.” The size of the yield gap defines the room for increasing production above current levels for a given area (Figure 20).

Figure 20: Conceptual Framework: Yield Potential, Farm Yield and Yield Gaps
Conceptual framework

Irrigated maize in Nebraska has high yield potential — 14.7 metric tons per hectare — and, due to irrigation, it has a low variation over time (seven percent). Nebraska’s producers have access to inputs and information that allow them to optimize farm management and achieve and maintain very high farm yields. Thus, the yield gap is relatively small, representing only 10 percent of the simulated yield potential. Wheat producers in Australia also have access to inputs and information, but due to erratic and variable rainfall among locations and years, their management is a bit more conservative, which results in a yield gap of 30 percent of the simulated yield potential. In contrast to the cases of Nebraska and Australia, maize producers in Kenya lack access to inputs, markets and information, which results in a very large gap of 70 percent between actual and potential yields.

Figure 21: Yield Gaps in Three Cropping Systems

Cropping Systems

There is increasing support for a model of sustainable intensification (SI) as the path forward for agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia. The GYGA provides information to identify regions most suitable for SI due to a combination of favorable soils and climate and where there are opportunities for using SI successfully to increase yields.


In 1997, J. Pretty articulated a paradigm for production, sustainable intensification (SI), that increases yields through technologies and practices that protect soil fertility, conserve water and do not require expanding the land under cultivation or pasture; using all inputs (water, fertilizer, pesticides and energy) more efficiently. This approach combines an emphasis on productivity with a “double-bottom line” of attention to environmental sustainability and resilience and has been endorsed and amplified in a 2013 Montpellier Panel Report.47 Sustainable intensification is showing promising results, particularly for smallholder farmers in challenging agro-ecological landscapes, and will require rapidly scaled-up investment and extension to reach millions more in the coming decade.


Sustainably intensifying agriculture involves increasing yields as well as protecting natural resources and improving people’s lives. USAID is supporting global research institutes (members of the CGIAR) to connect farmers in South Asia and Africa with local, regional and international scientists to identify farming practices that improve productivity and incomes, while providing long-term livelihood and environmental benefits.

The Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia (CSISA) program started in 2008 and is being conducted in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan. The program takes a comprehensive approach of technology development, on-farm adaptive research and dissemination through public- and private-sector channels

As an example, CSISA Bangladesh (CSISA-BD) is implemented through a partnership of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), and WorldFish with the goal of increasing incomes, using resources more efficiently and building resilience to risks for farming families. The CSISA-BD program ends in 2015 and many of the beneficiaries have already been trained and are implementing improved practices. Machinery, seeds, and best agronomic practices have been widely disseminated through private companies, reaching millions more.48

Soil salinity and lack of access to fresh water for irrigation have impeded farmers in Southwest Bangladesh from planting a crop during the dry season of the year, limiting them to one crop during the wet (monsoon) season. Under CSISA-BD, farmers have received seeds of salt-tolerant, early-maturing and high-yielding rice varieties that have allowed them to expand to two or three crops without stressing natural resources. Salt-tolerant rice varieties can be grown in the dry season. Early-maturing rice varieties sown during the monsoon season allow farmers to squeeze a mustard crop between the wet and dry season rice crops.

Program monitors estimate that 1.06 million farmers participating in the program have thus far received stress-tolerant and high-yielding seeds and another 1.2 million farmers obtained the improved seeds through sales and gifts.49 Support was given to strengthen the 120 seed associations and three large seed companies partnering with CSISA-BD to ensure that the seed supply initiated through this program is sustained after the intervention is completed.

Salinity-tolerant sunflower enables farmers to utilize land that would normally not be used for crop production in the dry season. It requires less irrigation than rice and has been introduced with a package of technologies to minimize farmers’ costs, water use and soil degradation. Adding sunflowers diversifies the cropping system and they can be processed into nutritional products that have great market potential. Despite a growing demand in Dhaka supermarkets for high-quality, cholesterol-free cooking oil made from sunflowers, little is locally available. A value chain analysis identified that the quantity of sunflower production was not yet sufficient to encourage local oil press owners to adapt their operations to sunflower oil production. To stimulate production, a Bangladeshi non-profit organization started investing in sunflower oil processing and will buy whatever sun flower oil is produced.

Mechanization is another technological enhancement for farmers. Using strip-till or bed-planter attachments to two-wheel tractors allows for the seeding of crops into crop stubble without plowing, reducing the cost and time to establish a crop. More than 100 village-based service-provider companies bought and were trained in the use of this equipment by a machinery importer, creating a means for continuing conservation-farming extension services and expanding farmers’ access to improved machinery.

The Africa Research in Sustainable Intensification for the Next Generation (Africa RISING) program started in 2012 and will continue through 2016. African scientists identified increasing soil quality as a top priority for raising agricultural productivity in main agro-ecological zones of Sub-Saharan Africa. At most, 16 percent of Africa’s lands have the high-quality soils that are best suited to supporting livestock and crops. Farmers often degrade already poor lands through cropping practices that remove more nutrients than they return to the soil. Erratic weather is exacerbating soil degradation and increasing threats from weeds, pests and plant and animal diseases that can leave smallholder farmers susceptible to catastrophic losses.50

Perenniation — integration of trees and perennials, plants that live for two or more years, into fields of food crops — is one method for improving soil fertility that Africa RISING has identified as highly successful in East African agro-ecological zones. The roots of perennials often extend more than two meters deep (compared with less than a meter for most annuals) and their growing seasons are longer, making them more resilient to harsh environmental conditions.

Because they produce more biomass, both above and below ground, perennials are better at reducing soil erosion, transferring organic inputs to soil microorganisms and increasing the amount of carbon stored in the soil, a key component of soil health. These organic inputs and microorganisms then improve soil fertility and structure as well as increase water infiltration and storage — all of which increase the amount of water available to and used by crops. By supplying the soil with carbon, perennials can improve the ability of food crops to use mineral fertilizers and potentially help farmers adapt to climate change.51


Farmers need low-cost, readily available storage technology to prevent loss of crops to disease and bad weather. The Purdue Improved Cowpeas Storage (PICS) bag protects cowpeas (black-eyed peas), a popular, protein-rich food in Africa, from a destructive weevil that damages it in post-harvest storage.52 Less of the crop is wasted, farmers have more choices about when to sell in order to increase profits, and consumers have access to a nutritious food throughout the year.

Under a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant, Purdue University is collaborating with international agricultural research centers, government agencies, non-governmental organizations, entrepreneurs and farmers to create supply chains for the bags in 10 West and Central African countries and to train farmers how to store cowpeas without chemicals. One three-layered, polyethylene-and-polypropylene bag costs between $2 and $3, but it can increase farmers’ incomes by 25 percent.

Besides delivering an innovative, low-cost technology that can readily be distributed through African sales distribution systems, more is now known about the weevil that infests cowpeas. Female weevils can have as many as 100 offspring a month, and after three or four months, a crop that is not stored correctly will be destroyed. Dr. Larry Murdock, the Purdue professor of insect physiology who developed the PICS bag technology, discovered that the insects produce most of their water themselves through metabolic processes. As oxygen in the hermetically-sealed bags decreases, the weevils cannot use it to create water and they die of thirst. Before, it was thought that the low-oxygen environment in the bag caused suffocation.


Aflatoxins are highly toxic substances produced by soil-borne fungi that, without preventative measures, can contaminate crops, both in the field and after harvest. Aflatoxin contamination is a particularly great concern in Sub-Saharan Africa because it is present in staple crops, such as maize (corn), cassava, sorghum, rice, yams and groundnuts (peanuts), but there are inadequate technologies and systems to prevent and control contamination at each stage of the value chain. Animal feed contaminated with aflatoxin results in contaminated poultry, dairy and meat consumed by people. Consumption of foods with high aflatoxin levels, or prolonged consumption of foods with moderate levels, leads to liver disease and cancer throughout Africa. It is also suspected to cause stunting and other forms of malnutrition.53 Because of the health and economic threats that aflatoxin poses, concerted, coordinated efforts are underway to control it, including research, adoption of innovative technologies and more effective policies.

In 2012, the African Union Commission launched the Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa (PACA), bringing together many African research and policy groups and regional economic unions. With support from USAID, other governmental aid agencies, USDA, The World Bank and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, PACA developed a multi-sectoral work plan for aflatoxin prevention, detection and control. From 2013 through 2022, PACA will support agricultural development and the creation of policies that safeguard consumer health and facilitate trade — working along the value chain from agricultural production, to post-harvest treatment and handling, to consumption of the food product.54 By engaging local and international experts across many fields, the African Union Commission can identify approaches and technologies that have the greatest chance for success and are based on sound scientific evidence and risk assessments.

Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Nutrition (Nutrition Innovation Labs, Africa and Asia). Studies conducted in West Africa and elsewhere suggest that there is an adverse relationship between aflatoxin and maternal and child nutrition.55 To better understand these relationships and how to prevent exposure, the USAID-supported Nutrition Innovation Labs based at Tufts University will initiate prospective studies in Uganda and Nepal to assess the causal role of aflatoxins in maternal and infant undernutrition. Many thousands of households will participate in longitudinal studies of how agriculture and dietary intake affect nutrition and health. These projects are platforms that allow the connections between dietary aflatoxins and maternal and child nutrition to be rigorously delineated in the most vulnerable groups. They also provide opportunities for partners, such as the Peanut and Mycotoxin Innovation Lab, to better target technologies to address key issues revealed by the studies.

Feed the Future Lab for Collaborative Research on Peanut Productivity and Mycotoxin Control (Peanut and Mycotoxin Innovation Lab). The USAID-funded Peanut and Mycotoxin Innovation Lab at the University of Georgia developed a groundbreaking dry blanching technology that facilitates detection and sorting aflatoxin-contaminated peanuts after light roasting. In 2012, the lab trained food scientists and technologists in Ghana and Uganda to use this blanching technology, which allowed them to identify and remove contaminated peanuts. Aflatoxin presence was reduced to levels acceptable to countries with strict standards, thereby opening up new opportunities for exports. Industry partners, including some of the smallest peanut processors, successfully commercialized the dry blanching and detection techniques, leading to increased demand for domestic peanuts in both countries and the development of new food products, such as chocolate peanut spread and peanut cookies. The result is a safer, more diverse food supply, more jobs in the food processing industry, and greater revenues.


Executive Summary

The Global Agricultural Imperative

Producing More With Less

The GAP IndexTM

Spotlight on Sub-Saharan Africa: The Productivity Gap

Sources of Growth in Agricultural Output: Variation by Income

The Brazil-China Agricultural Connection

A Policy Voice

The Agricultural Value Chain

Policies in Action: Productivity Along the Value Chain

[1] Comprehensive Value Chain Programs

[2] Investments in Research, Science and Technology

[3] Building Local Capacity and Mobilizing the Private Sector in Developing Countries