Taking equity in agriculture from the what to the how

Photo: Santosh Jiban Chakma

Collective blog by the Commissioners of Working Group 5: SAI and Human/Social objectives: Haris Gazdar, Madiodio Niasse, Sara Mbago-Bhunu, Uduak Edem Igbeka, and Varad Pande.  

Farmers aren’t homogenous, there are always winners and losers from innovations, and the rural transformation, along with the disturbances of COVID-19, means that there are fluxes of farmers, especially the poorest, moving in and out of agriculture. This is common knowledge in the social equity realm of innovation in agriculture. We also know that investment in innovation has historically favored farmers over laborers, men over women, and politically dominant land-owning communities with formal property rights above indigenous and other communities with informal land rights.

Even with this wealth of knowledge, however, things aren’t changing; a cycle of repetition is holding back the equity dimensions of sustainable agriculture. How do we get past this? How can we take our knowledge and properly use innovation to bring about a more socially equitable, environmentally sustainable, and economically attractive agriculture?

Why is equity important? And how can we identify it?

First, it is important to identify why increasing equity within agricultural systems is important. Even looking beyond the obvious imperatives to address global development goals, act based on humanitarian grounds and respect human rights, greater equity can also have economic benefits. For example, increasing gender equity in land rights can increase productivity and total output because equitable land access is strongly associated with improved farming efficiency. Similarly, securing tenure rights of Indigenous populations can generate billions of dollars worth of benefits through carbon sequestration, reduced pollution and clean water, among other benefits. Here we can see that there are strong economic cases for increasing equity in agricultural systems.

We can start by getting to the crux of the equity problem by understanding where inequity lies. Innovation processes must be supported by monitoring, reporting, evaluation and adaptive learning – which in turn must be underpinned by tools for measuring dimensions of inequality and empowerment.

For example, the International Food Policy Research Institute’s Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index offers a standardized indicator to “directly measure women’s empowerment and inclusion in the agricultural sector”. Where systematically embedded, such processes help reveal the winners and losers of innovations. They allow innovators to balance the tradeoffs between groups and can assist conscious choice-making regarding where and how benefits and costs will be distributed. They also allow a clear and transparent understanding of what is working, what is not, and who is being affected.

Backing decisions with data

So, what can we base these changes on? Data-driven decision making is another crucial component for ensuring social equity in agricultural innovation. Broadly, scientific and academic research can include a greater focus on small-scale farmers and marginalized groups. Only 11% of current agricultural research focused on the Global South looks at farmers, and only 3% looks at small-scale producers. Further, only 2% of agricultural research focuses on women and girls, and only 1% focuses on elderly, Indigenous, and youth populations.

From this research vantage point, focusing on these groups can further develop the innovation community’s understanding of how the groups shape and fit within the agricultural sphere and how they intersect with equity dimensions, providing a more solid foundation for addressing equity in varying contexts. Moving to the practical realm, data collection processes, such as stakeholder consultations, household and individual level surveys, and pilot projects should provide contextual information on equity issues and how they can be addressed. For example, labor force surveys are beginning to better recognize and capture women’s unpaid work in agriculture.

Figure 1. Focus themes of agricultural research in the Global South.

Going further, innovators and innovation investors can no longer rely on the optimistic assumption that productivity-improving technological change will mechanically address social objectives. Investors and innovators must systematically embed mechanisms for considering and addressing social equity within the conception, development and dissemination phases of innovation processes. This can be done by developing collaborative consultation and co-creation with disadvantaged end-users, properly investigating the characteristics of the innovation environment, asking the right questions of both the targeted end-users and those that may feel the effects of the innovation, and considering and measuring the impact of any proposed innovation against social objectives.

Going beyond science and technology: the role of policy, institutions, and finance

Another hurdle is the ‘widening’ of our agricultural innovations. The need for productivity-enhancing technological innovation is undeniable, but it must go further. Innovation must stretch across foundations that support agricultural systems, including policies, institutional arrangements (both social and governmental) and finance. Institutions, policies and access to finance harbor and shape the capacities of individuals and groups within agriculture. Changes here can thus propel or hamper improvements in equity. Innovations in property rights and land reforms, labor rights and social protection systems can increase equity – or worsen it.

For example, in addition to correcting or attenuating inequality, the allocation and application of property rights have often led to the complete disenfranchisement of various groups such as women and Indigenous communities. The key principle here is to ensure that exclusionary features of existing property rights regimes are recognized and addressed through methods such as reallocation. A positive example, in this regard, will be to ensure that a fair share of government allocations of land are made in the name of female family members, or at least jointly in the names of women and men, rather than habitually favoring male heads of family. Another example would be ensuring that the collective rights of indigenous communities are recognized for land and resources over which they have exercised usufruct, even if they do not hold formal title.

Across innovation conception, development, dissemination and rewards, innovators must ask what the various salient dimensions of social inequality are in any given setting; they must look at how the equity dimensions interact with each other and how they might interact with any proposed innovation, and they must consult and collaborate with end-users. Adding to this, innovation must go beyond science and technology to look at policies, institutions and financing. All of these elements must be backed by data and evidence that can support decision-making processes. Addressing these how elements can move us beyond our knowledge and cycles of repetition to innovate and bring about more a socially equitable, environmentally sustainable and economically viable agriculture.

The views expressed in this blog are those of individual Commissioners and are not necessarily supported by CoSAI.