WRENmedia past and present: communicating for change
Thirty years after founding WRENmedia – and 12 years after retiring – Michael Pickstock considers the past and future role of the company in increasing agricultural awareness within developing countries.
Thirty years since the founding of WRENmedia, is cause surely for celebration, or at least reflection. For some three decades, the WREN team has been dedicated to improving communication in rural development, particularly agriculture. WRENmedia’s editorial responsibility for the BBC World Service’s long-running The Farming World, for CTA’s Spore, and for the DFID-funded New Agriculturist, has been complimented with reporting on major international conferences and training broadcasters and journalists, scientists and extension staff in improved communication techniques. In 1995, the team’s work was recognised with FAO’s prestigious Boerma Award, “for the dedication shown to covering agriculture in developing countries, particularly with regard to increasing food production, and for the contribution made to greater public awareness and understanding”. WREN’s work continues, but the challenges to agriculture remain and even grow.
In the past three or four decades, global population has doubled and with it, food demand. Better communication has contributed to significant advances in production techniques and yields, but rising standards of living have added to food demand. Meanwhile, increasingly eroded soils and uncertain rains are sabotaging efforts to increase crop yields further, and once self-sufficient farmers are fast becoming dependent refugees.
Agriculture has long made major demands on water – 70% in many regions – but burgeoning urbanisation, industrialisation and tourism are making increasingly insistent, competing demands: how will this resolve, especially as climate variability and reducing mountain snow-cover deplete supply during peak growing seasons? Agriculture is also identified as a major contributor to climate change, responsible, according to some estimates, for as much as 40% of greenhouse gas emissions generated through manufacture and use of fertilisers, mechanisation and methane produced by rice and cattle. Furthermore, can human diets be permitted to be and to become so dependent on meat, particularly beef, with its disproportionate demand for feed and water? What are the choices facing farmers as the spectre of climate catastrophe overshadows the coming decades?
A book just published (The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells) examines many of these dilemmas, and most of his conclusions are undoubtedly bleak. But there is also recognition that if appropriate actions are taken, boldly and without further delay, what might be termed survival strategies could offer opportunities for effecting radical changes in priorities and modes of living and working. Reduced mechanisation and fertiliser use could be compensated by greater manpower and crop-nitrogen fixation, and water could be used much more efficiently with trickle and drip irrigation. Switching to more intensive cropping of vegetables, more akin to horticulture, could raise both the value of the crops harvested and their nutritive value. With respect to meat production, pigs and poultry will likely become the main livestock, and it is probable that cost and personal choice will drive an accelerating move to vegetarianism among consumers.
Whichever trajectories agriculture follows in the decades to come, communication will remain at the heart of educating farmers in new techniques and technologies, and motivating men and women to implement them. Agriculture, far from being seen as a career of last resort, will demand the engagement of the finest minds. Policymakers need to provide the lead – and soon – and those tasked with communication must hone their knowledge and skills to play a crucial and demanding, yet fulfilling, role.
The WREN team of yesteryear may well have gone but not without successors to fill their shoes and follow their footsteps.