Platform for African – European Partnership in Agricultural Research for Development

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Lessons from UNFSS for agricultural innovation and research

Science and Innovations for Food Systems Transformation and Summit Actions

This Reader (September 2021, #452 p.) reported about the findings of the Scientific Group of the UN Food Systems Summit (ScGroup) along with selected briefs prepared by its global partners.

The UNFSS Scientific Group (ScGroup) was responsible to bear the foremost scientific evidence to the United Nations 2021 Food Systems Summit by helping stakeholders and participants to access shared knowledge about experiences, approaches, and tools for driving sustainable food systems.

There are strong synergies between SDG2 and other related SDGs. The synergies and trade-offs are illustrated in particular, SDG1 (no poverty) is central for food security and can unlock many additional benefits across the SDGs. SDG2 is closely integrated with SDG3 (good health and well-being) due to the close link between malnutrition and maternal and child health, as well as deaths associated with poor diet. Other socioeconomic SDGs — including SDG4 (education), SDG5 (gender equality), SDG8 (decent work and economic growth), SDG10 (reduced inequality), SDG11 (sustainable cities and communities), SDG16 (peace, justice and strong institutions). (p. 25)

Strategic propositions included 1) strengthening research cooperation between science communities and Indigenous Peoples knowledge communities, 2) calling on governments to spend at least 1% of food systems GDP on food systems science, and 3) establishing pathways toward strong science - policy interfaces at national and international levels to enable evidence-based follow up to action agendas established at the summit.  
“Sustainable food systems are: productive and prosperous (to ensure the availability of sufficient food); equitable and inclusive (to ensure access for all people to food and to livelihoods within that system); empowering and respectful (to ensure agency for all people and groups, including those who are most vulnerable and marginalized to make choices and exercise voice in shaping that system); resilient (to ensure stability in the face of shocks and crises); regenerative (to ensure sustainability in all its dimensions); and healthy and nutritious (to ensure nutrient uptake and utilization)” (HLPE, 2020).

"A recent innovation is the assessment of the adequacy, affordability and access to healthy diets included in the 2020 SOFI report. If continually updated, this indicator could become a comprehensive proxy for monitoring progress on ensuring safe, nutritious food for all."  

Below is a selection of extracts on agricultural innovation and research.

The problems of food systems are to a significant extent due to long delays between scientific warnings and policy responses, innovation-stifling regulatory regimes, low levels of science investments, and a lack of effective communication by science communities themselves. Moreover, inclusive research in many fields of food systems offers opportunities, where local communities are co-creators in the research and development of innovations with scientists who are open to related collaboration. (p.15)

Science is not naïve vis á vis power relations, and social sciences explicitly uncover them and must identify options for innovations that help to overcome adverse effects. (p.16)

Investments in capacity for science and innovation need to expand, with more attention to strengthening local research capacities, developing more inclusive, transparent, and equitable science partnerships, promoting international research cooperation and addressing intellectual property rights issues where they hinder innovations that can serve food and nutrition security, food safety, and sustainability goals. (p.16)

Science has at least two important roles for food systems: first, science generates new breakthroughs that can become innovations in food systems (e.g. genomics, plant nutrition, animal production and health, bio-sciences, earth sciences, social sciences, remote sensing, AI and robotics, digitization, remote sensing, big data, health and nutrition science, behavioral research, etc.); and second, science helps to inform and shape decisions, investments, policies and institutions and it can also be involved in the design, implementation and monitoring of action to learn and draw lessons for impact at scale. (p.19)

Considerably more science is needed to understand the drivers in the processing, marketing and food environments. (p.20)

Specific science opportunities for innovations include genetic engineering, genome editing, alternative protein (including more plant-based and insect-derived protein) sources and essential micronutrient sources, cell factories, microbiome and soil and plant health technologies, plant nutrition technologies, animal production and health technologies. These advances in science and technology have great potential to meet food system challenges such as restoring soil health and functionality, improving the resource efficiency of cropping systems, breeding orphan and underserved crops, and re-carbonization of the terrestrial biosphere. Modern plant breeding techniques that allow plants to capture nitrogen from the air reduce the need for fertilizers and improve nutritional qualities. 

However, it must not be neglected that there are potential risks associated with science-based innovations that need to be considered within the science systems and with societal dialogues through transparency, ethical standards and reviews, biosafety measures, and – where needed – with regulatory policies. Adopting the One Health approach, i.e. the health of soil, plants, animals, people, ecosystems and planetary processes, being one and indivisible, would make an important  contribution. (p.22)

Developing bio-science and digital innovations and ensuring that they – especially the potentially controversial technologies – contribute to sustainability is not sufficient; rather, it will be important to adapt them to local conditions, make them accessible and affordable to farmers, especially smallholders, and use them to enhance local and traditional knowledge. It will also be important to  have open information sharing so that users are aware of the opportunities, costs and benefits of new  innovations and able to better use the available technology and implement innovations. To ensure that poor communities are not left behind, governments of countries in the global South need to invest in the creation of capacities and expertise to develop and utilize bio-sciences and digital technologies and receive support for that from development partners. (p.23)

Enabling food systems transformations requires constant investment in science that has the potential to serve positive change in systems. In 2018, the world science “output” in terms of peer-reviewed publications was 4.04 million, and of these 14% related to agricultural and biological sciences (about 298,000) and environmental sciences (about 273,000).84 Thousands of potentially game-changing insights are generated by the world science communities every year. More attention is needed to identify actionable insights for innovations and that requires strengthening capacity and innovative financing. (p.29)

Because significant components of food systems are local, the Summit has to ensure that its outcomes and deliverables turn into positive local actions. This requires science aligning with national and local agendas for implementation actions. The proximity of science to decision-making is important to connect the timeliness and relevance of science to policy where and when it is needed.  (p.30)

The effective and independent participation of research communities from low-income countries and emerging economies in the SPI must be strengthened to enhance credibility, relevance and legitimacy. (...) Anti-science sentiments exist in parts of society. While pursuing new insights and truths, there are many issues on which scientists themselves do not agree, which sometimes irritates policy-makers and practitioners. Adhering to responsible and ethical principles, science must collaborate with a broad range of stakeholders. (p.31)

We call upon governments and UN agencies to initiate a process to explore options – existing as well as new – for a global SPI for a sustainable food system. This includes the CGIAR, the Global Forum on Agricultural Research and Innovation (GFAR), the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE), and the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP). (p.39)

UN agencies and their partners have converged through various mechanisms for food security coordination (e.g. FSIN, the Global Network Against Food Crises, expanding the SOFI collaborators, the CFS Global Strategic Framework, etc.). Strengthening the global governance and accountability regarding safe and nutritious food for all and sustainable food systems is key for meeting the challenges ahead and will require cross-sectoral integration of policies. (p.60)

Strengthening national policy scenarios and foresight is also necessary. Moreover, improved indicators of food systems (see SOFI, 2020) are required that could provide more holistic measures that capture safety, nutrition, inequality and sustainability. (p.60)

Context matters and comprehensive national action plans are crucial for setting out actions suited
to the particular economic, agricultural, social and dietary preferences of the particular nation. Careful consideration of the trade-offs and co-benefits of any actions will be necessary at different levels (sub-national, national, regional and global). Likewise, there may be ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in each action adopted to transform to more sustainable food systems. The losses and gains will vary depending on the context but could include a loss of income and livelihoods across the food system. (...) 
More research is needed to identify the most adequate, affordable, healthy and sustainable diets across different contexts.  (p.77)

At national level, government food safety systems monitor compliance with official standards through food inspections. While metrics are considered key to monitoring and improving performance, they can also have unintended consequences, including focusing efforts on the thing to be measured rather than the ultimate goal of improving the thing being measured, stifling innovation through standardisation, costs that increase in disproportion to benefits attained, incentivising perverse behaviour to game metrics and reduced attention to things that are not measured, the balance and potential of large multinationals vs. small and medium-sized enterprises, short vs. long value chains, and low- and middle-income countries.  (p.91)

The role of science and innovation will be essential for deploying interventions at scale and at low costs, and for minimising the potential trade-offs arising. Transparent multi-stakeholder dialogues will be key at all stages of planning the appropriate transition pathways towards our desired global goals of healthy diets, healthy ecosystems and prosperity for all. (p.98)

As illustrated by the land sharing vs land sparing debate (Phalan et al., 2011), a balance needs to be found between the possible impacts from cropland on local biodiversity and the losses induced by agricultural land expansion. Some authors insist on the importance of the local context and the analysis of specific landscape scenarios to assess the best strategy for biodiversity between an intensification (sparing) or an extensification (sharing) approach (Law and Wilson, 2015). (p.121)

Hertel et al. (2020) compares food security impacts at the horizon 2050 for Africa depending on the level of technological spill-ins versus domestic R&D investment and trade integration (virtual technology import). They find that trade would be the most promising strategy for food security, and spill-ins would remain superior to domestic R&D efforts due to the slow pace of investment and poor performance of R&D institutions in Africa compared to other regions. However, this scenario would only stand if other regions kept using their productivity gains to provide more food instead of sparing natural resources. (p.123)

The Joint Programming Initiative (JPI) in the EU has improved the harmonisation of research activities across countries of the EU. A prominent example in the domain of the UNFSS is the JPI FACCE (Food Security, Agriculture and Climate Chan,) which is presently further developed to also link research to national and EU stakeholders including policy makers to better coordinate research and policies. (p.217)

Public and private investment in research on nature-positive food systems has been substantially
lower in comparison to other innovative approaches, which results in significant and persistent knowledge gaps (HLPE, 2019). A systems-oriented, transdisciplinary, and long-term field research approach is clearly lacking. Therefore, there is a disconnect in the knowledge and advisory systems
required to support nature-positive food systems and build the capacity of actors. There is also a shortage of inter- and transdisciplinary research on nature-positive food systems that takes into account the context specificity of the approaches. Nature-positive system thinking and solutions are not sufficiently well integrated into the curricula of universities and farmer schools. (...) Further research is therefore needed to better understand which government policies can support nature-positive food systems and multi-functionality of agriculture more generally. Importantly, more information is needed on the public and private costs of sectoral approaches that result in contradicting and conflicting policies.

Further research and an improved understanding of the role of the food system in the context of Global One Health may provide additional entry points via the food system for sustainable, culturally acceptable and economically feasible interventions. (...) The European Commission is moving towards a code of conduct for participants in the food supply chain, which could be considered at a global level. Most recently, in September 2020, a One Health High-Level Expert Council by UN Environment, FAO, OIE and WHO was created to address risks at the human-animal-environment interface. When consumers, producers and governments combine their efforts and take a Global One Health approach to re-design the agri-food system, significant steps can be made towards food system resilience and better health.  (p.397)

When it comes to developing extension systems that align with agroecological approaches, publicly funded extension services are crucial. Tackling them requires re-configuring knowledge and extension systems in ways that place a much greater emphasis on participation and social learning, e.g. farmer-to-farmer learning and onfarm demonstrations.  (p.405)

Agricultural research projects and partnerships too often remain focused on one-way knowledge transfer via institutes based in the Global North. It is therefore crucial not only to promote a shift towards agroecological research but also to rebalance North-South power relations through equal research partnerships and direct access to research funding. Additionally, increased funding to build lasting bridges for South-South collaboration is needed. Supporting the emergence of long-term partnerships and coalitions with a focus on agroecology, local ownership, and the meaningful involvement of social movements and farmers’ organizations is equally important. In parallel, the Public-Private Partnership model that is so central to current AgR4D needs to be continually scrutinized with regard to the delivery of benefits vis-à-vis the SDGs (Biovision & IPES-Food, 2020). (p.408)

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