An urgent task: we must innovate to sustainably intensify the Global South’s agricultural systems

Mulugeta Ayene / WLE

An urgent task: we must innovate to sustainably intensify the Global South’s agricultural systems

Ruben G. Echeverria, Chair, Commission on Sustainable Agriculture Intensification (CoSAI) 

These challenging times are forcing us to rethink the prominent paradigms that govern our lives, from how we work to how we shop in this “new normal”. As other sectors scramble to keep people healthy and keep children in school, the food sector faces a daunting challenge: ensuring that the 7.8 billion people in the world have access to food. With estimated millions struggling to afford food due to Covid-19, farmers throwing out tons of fresh produce, milk and meat, because no one is buying them, and restaurants and small businesses teetering on the edge of collapse, the coronavirus has exposed weaknesses in food systems and their ability to provide safe, healthy and nutritious food for all. Looking forward, we need to use our current failures to reconsider how to better connect agriculture, nutrition, and health – and in doing so how to make future food and land systems more sustainable and resilient.  

Growing demands to intensify agricultural production to feed a growing population is adding pressure to food and land use systems, which already are under extreme stress. At the same time, there is a need to improve access to nutritious and healthy food, all while reducing the negative effect of agricultural systems on our environment.  

International efforts to tackle this complex issue have been associated with lengthy debates about how to meet a range of interconnected goals: improving access to quality diets, preventing further environmental harm, restoring ecosystems and landscapes, mitigating and adapting to climate change and increasing prosperity of rural and urban households. As a result of a great deal of deep analysis, major reports, and important expert commissions – many different paradigms have been developed. These include agroecology, ecological intensification, eco-efficient agriculture, regenerative agriculture, conservation agriculture, climate smart agriculture, sustainable agricultural intensification, and many more. They all contribute greatly to providing a roadmap forward, while adding new and important points of view on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).   

Although technical discussions help us learn from experts and ensure we are aware and inclusive of many points of view, debates on this topic often leave us with nothing more than detailed diagnoses about complex challenges. We need to find solutions. We need ways to solve these challenges in developing countries, ninety percent of them located in the tropics, where challenges converge and magnify the relative lack of capacities and resources.  

Given the vast heterogeneities across borders – and sometimes within national boundaries – one paradigm will not be able to solve such gigantic global challenges. If we want to scale up social, economic, and environmental impacts – particularly in the Global South – we cannot be tied down to a single paradigm. I believe it is imperative that we work across different paradigms to find the right solutions, even if this means seeking consensus across apparently competing paradigms, such as sustainable intensification vs. agroecology. Similar calls have been made by others, for example a proposal for ‘blended sustainability’. 

Even if there are technical disagreements about concepts, the global development community needs to make progress beyond a global diagnosis and must find consensus on potential solutions on actionable scales at local levels. Moreover, we need to identify technical, policy, institutional, and financial innovations that allow us to implement those potential solutions by promoting effective and efficient business models that attract significant investments to scale up solutions. 

‘Intensifying’ agricultural systems in a sustainable manner means making use of valuable ecological functions as much as possible, while generating more value and reducing resource use and environmental harm by keeping interventions as eco-efficient as possible. To successfully intensify agricultural systems sustainably, we must shift our focus from much-researched technological innovations to the policy and institutional innovations needed to achieve sustainable intensification. 

If new technologies are too expensive, or too difficult to maintain or use without training, then developing new technologies for farmers will not get them very far, and if there are no incentives driving farmers to use new technologies, the uptake pathway will not be viable. For example, if subsidies make the cost of fertilizer, water, or energy too cheap, then new technologies that benefit the environment by requiring less fertilizer, water or energy will never be used.  

An enabling policy environment is crucial to promote innovation, and to provide the resources necessary to allow for the long-term uptake of new sustainable technologies.  

The Commission on Sustainable Agriculture Intensification (CoSAI) is launching to promote policy, financial, institutional and technical innovation in agricultural systems to deliver the SDG objectives of food and nutrition security, social equity, resource use efficiency, and an improved natural environment.   

The focus of the Commission will be promoting innovation for rapid transformative change in sustainable agricultural intensification (SAI). ‘Innovation’ here includes formal R&D as well as the whole spectrum of innovations by various food system actors, from farmers to public and private sector agents tackling technical, policy, and institutional innovations. The Commission has already started its work, beginning with a study to assess the flow of current global investment to agricultural innovation and estimating how much of this supports SAI.   

Through a public inquiry process, CoSAI will address other critical questions related to innovation in SAI, including how much public and private funds would be needed to implement them under a SAI framework.   

We have had decades of debates about sustainable agriculture paradigms, and the current COVID crisis has exposed just how much we need to strengthen and support our strained agricultural systems. Now is the time to build practical and scalable solutions. We must do so by significantly improving and expanding investments in institutional, policy, financial, technical and social innovations for the sustainable intensification of our agricultural systems. Only by doing this will we meet our goals of providing safe, nutritious, and healthy food for all without further harming the environment, while building resilience for the future of our agricultural systems. 

May 26th, 2020