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Sustainable Agricultural Innovation Systems (SAIS) for Food Security and Environmental Protection

17 Jun 2012

Sustainable Agricultural Innovation Systems (SAIS) for Food Security and Environmental Protection
This is part of a series of think pieces reflecting on the importance of bringing the social dimension back into discussions about green economy and sustainable development.

The twin perils of global food insecurity and environmental degradation necessitate expanding resources and fostering innovation in agriculture to accelerate food production in a sustainable manner, while also supporting poverty reduction. Achieving this will require increased recognition of the centrality of small-scale farming, short-term humanitarian action, and longer term policies for sustainable agricultural innovation systems (SAIS).

Diana Alarcón and Christina Bodouroglou work at the Development Policy and Analysis Division at the UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs (DPAD/DESA).

Food crises have exposed deep structural flaws in the world food system
The rise of international food prices to record highs in 2007–2008 and 2010–2011 has contributed to raising the global number of undernourished people to one billion. High food prices, combined with drought and conflict, culminated in famine in Somalia in 2011 and have underpinned a new food and nutrition crisis currently unfolding in the Sahel region of Africa. The latest food price crises have been the outcome of multiple, intertwined demand-side factors (including growing and wealthier populations, commodity speculation, trade policies and the depreciation of the US dollar) and supply-side causes (including climatic conditions, competition for land, biofuel policies, high energy prices, and dwindling agricultural production and investment).

With current agricultural technology, practices and land-use patterns, food production cannot increase without further contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, land degradation, biodiversity loss, water scarcity and pollution. But the consequent environmental damage will, in turn, undermine long-term growth in food productivity. Unsustainable natural resource management—driven by poor land and water management practices—can also lead to other negative socioeconomic consequences including poverty, migration, gender inequality and ill health (IAASTD 2009).

Unravelling the social causes of the crises reveals deep structural problems in the global food system, which will have to be transformed in order to increase food production by 70 to 100 per cent by mid-century to feed a forecasted future population of 9 billion people.

Small-scale farmers are central to the battle against poverty and hunger
There is an urgent need for the rapid diffusion of sustainable agricultural technology and practices in both developed and developing countries (United Nations 2011). In the latter, there is growing international consensus over the centrality of small-scale farmers, including women, in battling poverty and hunger and fostering economic growth. The need to support small-scale farming stems from the reality that farms comprising less than two hectares of land account for about 90 per cent of all farms worldwide. They are home to the majority of the extremely poor and about half of the undernourished people in the world, even though they are the mainstay of food production and can be more efficient and environmentally sustainable than large-scale farming, when accompanied by an enabling institutional environment.

Improving food security with environmental sustainability will depend on removing the socioeconomic and political barriers faced by small-scale farmers in expanding their productive capacity. A dynamic agricultural production system based on efficient small-scale farmers would also provide the basis for poverty eradication, food security and sustainable economic growth.

From a policy standpoint, tackling the double threat of global food insecurity and environmental destruction will require both short-term humanitarian relief to alleviate hunger and starvation, as well as long-term actions to foster agricultural innovation and boost sustainable food production.

Short-term humanitarian action
Improving the humanitarian response to food crises—including the 2011 famine and acute food insecurity in the Horn of Africa and the 2012 hunger crisis in the Sahel region—necessitates strong political commitments by governments, and international and non-governmental organizations to raise funds, implement measures, respond promptly to early warning systems, and strive to improve humanitarian access to the worst-affected and often conflict-ridden areas. Lessons from short-term policy reactions to the earlier 2007–2008 global food crisis have also pointed to the importance of providing targeted safety nets for the poor as emergency responses to food shortfalls. While trade protection and building food inventories may enhance national food availability in the short run, such measures may at the same time prove costly in terms of government expenditure and contribute to keeping food prices high by restricting global food supply (Jones and Kwiecinski 2010).

Long-term policies for building sustainable agricultural innovation systems to enhance food production
Ensuring food security over the longer-term requires major policy transformations to strengthen systems of agricultural innovation and increase resources for rural development and sustainable natural resource management. This will require a radically different approach to addressing the structural constraints on food production. It would entail both the establishment of integrated national frameworks for sustainable natural resource management, and a harnessing of the technology and innovation needed to increase the productivity, profitability, resilience and climate change mitigation potential of rural production systems. Governments thus have an important role to play in expanding access to technology and information; building rural infrastructure; improving access to credits, input and product markets; building and maintaining storage facilities and irrigation systems; providing social safety nets; and securing property rights, including land redistribution. In this endeavour, SAIS provides a useful framework for policy making, emphasizing policies and incentives to stimulate innovation to increase food productivity while protecting the environment. SAIS recognizes the dynamic nature of learning and innovation, the multiplicity of actors engaged in the innovation process and the institutional contexts within which they interact.

Small-scale farmers and communities have shown great capacity to introduce productivity-enhancing innovations, which have resulted in enhanced pest and weed management, water efficiency and biodiversity. Important lessons can be drawn from several well-known examples of rural innovations with large-scale impacts, such as integrated pest management, Farmer Field Schools, the System of Rice Intensification, networks of millers and politicians that popularized the use of New Rice for Africa (NERICA),1 and watershed management in India (Brooks and Loevinsohn 2011). Common features among these efforts include explicit support from governments, multilateral and civil society organizations, and/or direct involvement of local farmers in donor-led initiatives.

Nevertheless, agricultural technologies and practices are not widely applicable to different regions—especially Africa, owing to the continent’s widely varying agro-climatic conditions, more diversified consumption of staples, reliance on rain-fed agriculture, insecure land rights, and poor access to credit and farming inputs—but rather need to be adapted to local circumstances. Therefore, a wide range of existing options need to be made available to meet farmers’ specific needs, including traditional knowledge and practices (such as low-tillage farming, crop rotation and interplanting and water-efficient cropping); technology that emerged from the green revolution (such as new higher yielding, water-efficient and pest- and disease-resistant crop varieties); and modern technologies (such as biotechnology and hydroponics). Governments have an important role in ensuring that such options are available, adaptable and affordable for small-scale farmers. This, in turn, will require a broad set of actions.

First, sustainable agriculture to achieve food security needs to be an explicit component of countries’ national development strategies, including the identification of financial resources to expand rural infrastructure and support services to small-scale agricultural producers. A holistic, cross-sectoral approach should consider trade-offs and build on synergies between sectors and objectives, to prioritize and promote technically available and economically feasible win-win options that ensure food security, poverty reduction and environmental sustainability.

Second, there is a need to substantially expand resources for agricultural research and development and for the adaptation of technology to local conditions, with an explicit focus on meeting the needs of small-scale farmers, including women.

Third, new forms of public-private partnerships, including with civil society organizations, need to be identified to expand the provision of public goods in rural areas.

Fourth, the institutions responsible for service provision in rural areas (including education, and research and development/R&D) will need to undergo radical reform to make them responsive to the needs of small-scale rural producers through direct participation and consultation between small-scale producers and relevant stakeholders.

Finally, international commitments toward food security need timely delivery and must be aligned to national development strategies.

The international community can also contribute to a global agenda for food security and environmental sustainability through reform of agricultural subsidies, including to biofuels, in countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD); elimination of non-tariff barriers to food trade; increased investment in agricultural R&D; new payments for environmental services to small farmers in developing countries; and effective regulation of commodity futures markets.

The latest food crises that have struck parts of Africa have increased international awareness of the risks posed by climatic changes and degradation of natural resources in aggravating food insecurity in vulnerable regions. This provides a window of opportunity to build the political consensus required to implement radical changes in the institutions that govern agricultural development, and focus attention on the needs of small-scale farmers and rural women in poverty-struck and food-insecure countries and regions of the world.

Brooks, S. and M. Loevinsohn. 2011. Shaping Agricultural Innovation Systems Responsive to Food Insecurity and Climate Change. Background paper for the WESS 2011.

International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). 2009. Agriculture at a Crossroads: The Global Report—International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development. IAASTD, Washington, DC.

Jones, D. and A. Kwiecinski. 2010. Policy Responses in Emerging Economies to International Agricultural Commodity Price Surges. OECD Food, Agriculture and Fisheries Working Papers, No. 34. OECD Publishing, Paris.

United Nations. 2011. World Economic and Social Survey 2011: The Great Green Technological Transformation. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN-DESA), New York.

A cultivar developed by the Africa Rice Centre to increase rice yields.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.