We’re all looking, but is it in the wrong direction? Mapping our metadata on agricultural research says maybe

Photo: Anna Frodesiak, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

What are we looking at as an agricultural research community? More importantly, what are we not looking at? One thing’s for sure, research into vegetables in Africa, a key component of nutrition and food security, is getting next to no attention. And then, when we start looking at taking our research and translating it into innovation, and innovation at scale, we have other lessons to learn – chiefly that informal networking institutions are key to ensuring success. These are some of the findings from CoSAI’s event in the WLE 'Research to resilience' webinar series that happened last Thursday, October 14.

The webinar drew on two new pieces of CoSAI evidence that are being generated to support smarter investments in agriculture. The Mapping Research Study, being led by Dr Jaron Porciello, is analyzing over 1,300,000 publications to establish and explore the current landscape of research for the Global South, specifically examining what research has been conducted on small-scale farming and post-production food systems.

The findings of the study highlight the contributions of evidence from China, India and Brazil, as well as the global research focus on technology, relative to environmental and socioeconomic research domains. The study is also revealing critical research gaps and emerging innovation requirements. Critical research areas that will help us overcome global food systems challenges, such as research into fruit and vegetable production in Africa, are lacking. This gives us, the agricultural research community, guidance around where we need to look to achieve our global equity and environmental objectives.

From the Innovation Pathways Study, Mr Apoorve Khandelwal of CEEW in India highlighted the importance of trust and leadership as unique aspects of informal institutions that are essential for the success of launching and scaling innovations. Mr Khandelwal also noted that unlocking investment to enable scaling of innovations remains a key challenge, with investors needing to consider the provision of more patient capital.

Following the presentations of evidence, Ms Sara Mbago-Bhunu, CoSAI Commissioner and Regional Director for East and Southern Africa at IFAD, highlighted the significant challenge of combining and targeting resources from both the public and private sector to target communities while concurrently managing communities’ heterogeneity and environment. Ms Mbago-Bhunu noted that managing these complexities means realizing that financing alone cannot meet all needs in this dynamic environment. She stressed the importance of an appropriate portfolio of blended instruments that have been carefully designed for ensuring sustainable, robust outcomes.  

As a trusted science partner, Andrew Campbell, CEO of ACIAR, reiterated Mr Khandelwal’s findings on delivering innovative projects. He agreed that successful innovation projects are well-led, have the right partners, and have a shared understanding of what they want to achieve with sufficient time and resources to make a difference. He noted that in designing this robust approach, it is essential that the science needs to be working effectively with end-users – whether they be farmers, policy makers or other actors in the value chain – with a clear eye on equity.

Professor Campbell thought that some of the research focus, as highlighted in Dr Porciello’s study, was not necessarily surprising, specifically the technology domain, but that some of the focus was driving us in the wrong direction. He noted that the lack of research focus on areas including subsidies (that in many ways encourage behaviors that we don’t want to see) should be a significant consideration for future research. The research portfolio must be rebalanced with smarter research to address the current, emerging and future challenges within our food systems.

Urgently, shifting our focus towards better research and looking beyond ‘more money that is doing the same thing’ is crucial for escaping a trajectory of slow and inconsequential outcomes, according to concluding remarks from Ann Tutwiler. As part of this urgency, farmers need to be at the center of our thinking, and a much better case needs to be built to ensure farmers understand why innovation is important to them. This needs to be supported by better communication with governments and National Agriculture Research Systems. As governments are the largest funders and drivers of innovation in the Global South, we need to ensure we are communicating using quick, easy to understand messages for policy makers that align with current policy drivers. Only then will we be able to lance the drastic and rapid changes required for our future food systems.