student profile: Ms Laura Ruiz Espinosa


Thesis work

Thesis title: Characterization of agricultural innovation systems (AIS) to adopt conservation agriculture in wheat production areas in Mexico and Australia

Supervisors: Richard TRETHOWAN , Peter AMPT

Thesis abstract:


Agricultural innovation system (AIS) is a key component in the agriculture area for most if not for all the countries around the world. AIS is used to describe a nation’s approach to meeting it’s need for food. Effective AISs are key to achieving food security, and the global challenge of achieving the 60% increase in food demand needed by 2050 according to FAO.

Worldwide, farming systems range from large-scale, highly specialized, capital-intensive operations as in Europe and North America; to small-scale, labour-intensive production systems with diverse livelihood strategies both on and off farm in most of developing countries. Due to the increase in crop production these systems are causing degradation of the natural resources, loss of biodiversity and increase in GHG emission that damage the environment (Beddington et al., 2012). This increase in agricultural production is happening at the expense of the environment. As a result there is a need for a transition to a more agroecological system that integrates production with environmental management.

Sustainable intensification (SI) is suggested as a system by producing more with less resources and has been advocated as a key strategy to achieve this agro-ecological transition. Jules Pretty argues that this shift is feasible if sustainable practices are implemented combined with less inputs, best technologies that keep high yields and avoid further degradation to natural resources (Pretty, 2008, Pretty and Bharucha, 2014). Within sustainable intensification conservation agriculture (CA) is promoted as one of the options to the transition. CA is defined as a technological packaged based on three main principles: minimum or no tillage, stubble retention and crop rotation (FAO, 2016) (Van den Broeck et al., 2013, Leeuwis, 2013a) (A. Kassam, 2015) and it has been widely adopted in developed and developing countries in response to the environmental concerns driven by agriculture. However, in the process of the adoption of a new practice it is necessary to do changes different levels not only at the biophysical but also infrastructural and institutional including policies that contribute to developing the capacities of farmers to understand these practices and their implications. AIS are to support this transition.

Through time different approaches to agricultural innovation systems have evolved: from the top-down or Transfer of Technology (ToT), to the bottom-up perspective with the Farming Systems Research (FSR) and recently the Agricultural Knowledge and Innovation Systems (AKIS) and Agricultural Innovation Systems (AIS) (Klerkx et al., 2012). The former two involve all the actors in the system looking at agriculture as a complex and dynamic system where is essential to consider human capital. Some research suggest capacity building and networking are key components for the disseminating a new practice or a novel technology (Cary et al., 2001).

For this research we will analyse two sides: 1) whether the ag innovation systems are supporting the adoption of conservation agriculture as part of sustainable intensification; and 2) to what extend conservation agriculture is supportive in the transition towards to sustainable agriculture with special focus on Conservation Agriculture in wheat production areas in Mexico and Australia.

Mexico has a total land area of 1,943,950 km2 and although 54 % is officially classified as agricultural, only 12.5 % is cultivated (WorldStat, 2016). One of the main issues in the last decades in the country is land degradation. The land affected by water erosion, most in the form of loss of topsoil, accounts for 37% of the total degraded land. Loss of top soil is also caused by wind erosion due to inadequate land cover whether due to deforestation, over ploughing, mono-cropping, overgrazing and from farming on marginal areas. Overall, only 36 % of Mexico can be considered free from any type of degradation (World Bank, 2009).

Wheat is the second most important crop in Mexico after corn. Between 2008 and 2013 the area sown to wheat averaged 733,000 hectares (IICA, 2016) and during the period 2014/15 roduction was of 3.7 millions tons. The states in the North and Central West of the country are the main producers of wheat: Sonora, Baja California, Sinaloa, Guanajuato and Michoacan.

Mexico has developed programs and introduce policies through time with the aim at tackling environmental problems related to agriculture, increasing yields, reducing poverty and ensuring food security as part of the Food security strategy in response to a food crisis in 2008 through 2011 increasing prices in the basic basket. With the new approach of the government reducing subsidies and being more oriented to provide technical assistance and training to small scale farmers, the Sustainable Modernization of Traditional Agriculture (MasAgro) is a ten year national strategy launched in 2010. This 138 million US dollars is integrated by four components: MasAgro Biodiversity, MasAgro Maize, MasAgro Wheat, MasAgro rarmer and the latest focuses on the extension strategy to build capabilities of farmers to adopt sustainable farming practices such Conservation Agriculture (CA) as part of Sustainable Intensification. This program is leaded by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMY) that a not-for-profit international research institute that act as a broker.

MasAgro Farmers has designed a model establishing “hubs” in specific locations throughout the country with similar agroecological conditions, and according to fam scale and crop importance. The idea is that these hubs will be operating as the points where extension can happen developing new technologies and practices and training farmers. A specific capacity-building program called Certified Technician has a strong emphasis where potentially any farmer or someone who proves to have any agricultural degree or hold the agricultural knowledge can become certified technicians to train other farmers (SAGARPA, 2012).

Contrastingly, in Australia wheat is the main crop and since the 1980 there has been a progressive decline in public investment in extension. In the early 1990’s Australian RD&E system started to switched from a government-dependent program to a market-driven model with the emergence of the Rural and Development Corporations (RDC) and Cooperative Research Centres (CRC). RDCs are in charge of collecting industry levies an allocate funds for the RD&E. CRCs are primarily research-oriented but also include an extension component. (Hunt et al., 2012, Hunt et al., 2014, Marsh and Pannell, 2000) Before this reform, in the 1970’s Australian government emphasized its efforts in the extension component as a response to the challenge of developing a more sustainable farming system because of the declining in the natural capital because of the over use of chemicals, water allocations and soil erosion.

This research is a cross country comparison between Mexico and Australia. The goal of this research is to identify to what extent the agricultural innovation system in each country is supporting in the transition to sustainable/agro-ecological wheat production through the adoption of conservation agriculture practices The main focus is on identifying the characteristics of each system with emphasis on building farmer capacity for decision-making that incorporates sustainability. A second focus is on the role that farmers organizations play in the innovation system.

The research will be conducted in wheat growing areas In Mexico in the States of Sonora and Guanauato within the context of MasAgro project and Australia, it will concentrate on national and state research and development activities in wheat production areas in Narrabri and Birchip, South-eastern Australia.

Data collection will take place in these four sites, two in each country, where wheat production is important. At least one site in each country has similar agroecological conditions, importance in adoption of CA practices, wheat production, and strong participation of farmer’s based-groups (Sonora and Narrabri). This research aims to find out what the dynamic is and the role that some of main agents play in the system to drive the shift towards a sustainable/ecological agriculture.

Research Questions

To what extent do the agricultural innovation systems of Australia and Mexico support a transition to sustainable/ecological wheat production?

  • What are the current agricultural innovation system approaches in each country?
  • In what ways are they supporting/hindering the transition?
  • What interactions between of actors in the innovation systems are impacting on the transition?

How do the innovation systems develop the capabilities of farmers to adopt sustainable practices?

  • From whom do farmers learn about sustainable practices?
  • How do they decide whether to adopt sustainable pratices?
  • What are the capacity-building programs that develop the knowledge of farmers to adopt sustainable practices?
  • Who delivers the training and where do the funds come from?

What is the role of the farmers organizations within each innovation system to support a transition adoption of sustainable agriculture practices in each country?

  • What are the active farmers organisations in each site and how did they arise? What benefits do farmers gain from membership of a farmer organisations?
  • How do farmer organisations contribute with the development of capabilities and networking for farmers?


The overall research approach will be grounded theory, utilising the following methods:

  • Literature review and revision of grey literature will be conducted (December 2017-January 2018
  • Observations, tracking what happened in the sites as well as interacting with the target audience (Qualitative Information)
  • Focus Group (Mexican and Australian Farmers) (Qualitative)
  • Semi-structure interviews (Qualitative Information)
  • Triangulations (Qualitative Information)
  • Surveys (Quantitative information)

Note: This profile is for a student at the University of Sydney. Views presented here are not necessarily those of the University.