Transforming agricultural research and development systems to meet 21st Century needs for climate action

 Jon Hellin, Eleanor Fisher, and Michelle Bonatti   |  

Research paradigms suitable for 20th-century challenges, such as the Green Revolution, need to give way to those better suited to 21st-century challenges. A change from a traditional science model, which is characterized often by siloed science funding, intense competition, and a lack of trust among stakeholders, to a model that encourages science to cater directly to societal needs. This can be achieved by co-creating actionable knowledge and finding solutions tailored to the intricate sustainability issues identified by both local and global stakeholders. Additional paradigms guiding agricultural research must also address social justice, environmental stewardship, and indigenous knowledge.

Climate shocks to agriculture threaten food security, especially in the Global South. Poverty and malnutrition are rising and there are dire warnings of what is to come. Agricultural research and development systems need to generate multiple game-changing innovations in order to transform our agricultural systems and ensure that they are climate-resilient, productive, sustainable, and equitable.

The challenge is immense and there are no shortages of sound advice on required directions for research. This is particularly the case for CGIAR, a global partnership that unites international organizations engaged in research to reduce rural poverty, increase food security, and improve human health and nutrition, while fostering sustainable management of natural resources.

At the 2022 Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, 45 world leaders launched The Breakthrough Agenda Report as part of a commitment to make clean technologies and sustainable practices more attractive, affordable and accessible by 2030. The report argues that for the agriculture sector, the breakthrough goal is that “Climate-resilient, sustainable agriculture is the most attractive and widely adopted option for farmers everywhere by 2030”

There is no single transformative agricultural innovation to realize this goal, but rather “synergistic interactions among multiple game-changing innovations in hundreds of national and local agricultural systems” that cumulatively lead to the transformation of global agriculture, according to a report. A transformation which is urgently needed to address climate challenges.

As agricultural researchers, we relate to the multifarious suggested priority research areas, recommendations and critiques of CGIAR and other agricultural research organizations. We believe, however, that discussions to date obscure fundamental and wider aspects about how research is done to ensure that it contributes to the needed radical transformation of food, land and water systems to meet 21st Century needs.

We recognize the huge contribution that a plethora of agricultural research and development systems have made and continue to make toward meeting these needs. It is not our intention to question the raison d’être of legions of committed professionals. On the contrary, we seek to make constructive suggestions and provoke discussions that we believe will render these systems even more effective, efficient and impactful. A fundamental first step is an urgent and radical transformation in the way that we conceptualize the research process and undertake research.

Research paradigms that were suitable for 20th Century challenges—e.g., the Green Revolution, an innovation system which CGIAR played a pivotal role in terms of both the science and practice—need to give way to those better suited to 21st Century challenges.

The Green Revolution relied heavily on technology transfer and undoubtedly contributed to significant increases in food production and reductions in poverty. However, it tended to benefit men rather than women, large-scale farmers rather than small-scale ones, and it had less beneficial impact in marginal production environments.

The International Science Council in its 2023 report Flipping the Science Model: A Roadmap to Science Missions for Sustainability captures an example of the paradigm shift required. A change from a traditional science model, which is characterized often by siloed science funding, intense competition and a lack of trust among stakeholders, to a model “that encourages science to cater directly to societal needs.”

This can be achieved by co-creating actionable knowledge and finding solutions tailored to the intricate sustainability issues identified by both local and global stakeholders. Additional paradigms guiding agricultural research must also address social justice, environmental stewardship, and indigenous knowledge.

A fundamental point that may or may not be self-evident when considering the need for game-changing innovations to transform agriculture is that agricultural innovation systems are embedded within societal contexts. Hence, to encourage science to cater more to societal needs, social scientists need to play a more prominent role in building a global transdisciplinary research process that fosters the co-design and co-production of research and action, and encourages more inclusive collaboration among science, policy-makers and civil society.

Agricultural research and development systems need to generate multiple game-changing innovations in order to transform our agricultural systems and ensure that they are climate-resilient, productive, sustainable, and equitable. Social scientists can provide urgently needed insights on societal dynamics that are critical when it comes to transforming climate change research into action.

Transdisciplinary partnerships are the foundation of transforming research into action; partnerships characterized by trust, accountability, a heavy dose of “intellectual humility” on the part of all stakeholders, including researchers, and integrating the different needs of the global North and South.

Co-creation in transdisciplinary research signifies a more profound dedication among the parties involved, who must collaborate to conceptualize, plan, and generate knowledge that benefits everyone, drawing on transformative learning in critical and dialogical research.

For global agricultural research and development systems to be truly fit-for-purpose and contribute to the needed radical transformation of food, land and water systems to meet 21st Century needs, greater numbers of ‘T-shaped’ researchers i.e., weavers, are needed. This part depends on changed incentive schemes at universities and research centers.

History can provide some of the answers. Alexander von Humboldt, the German geographer who fused science and humanism, and whose “combination of empathy, humility, confidence, and rigor can serve as a model for engaging the public on matters of urgent concern.”

Climate action is one of these urgent concerns. A big (and realistic step) would, perhaps, be for research organizations to employ more von Humboldts as part of a radical transformation in the way that we conceptualize and do research. In this way can come genuine breakthroughs in transformative action to address climate challenges through sustainable agriculture, without the threat of breakdowns in the very agricultural systems that sustain life.

This work was carried out with support from the CGIAR Research Initiative on Climate Resilience 

Read the study:
Hellin J. Fisher E, & Bonatti M. (2024). Transforming agricultural research and development systems to meet 21st Century needs for climate action. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, 8, 1398079.

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