Forward thinking in agriculture and food
By the IFRAI experts
How will agriculture succeed in feeding the 9 billion people that will inhabit the planet in 2050? How will it enable the international community to achieve the Millennium Development Goals set by the UN to combat poverty and hunger, while meeting increasingly strict environmental standards?
These are the questions that all scientists and experts working on agricultural issues are asking themselves.
It is within this context that the French Initiative for International Agricultural Research (IFRAI), a collaborative project conducted jointly by INRA (Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique) and CIRAD (Centre for International Cooperation in Agronomic Research for Development), organized a seminar to synthesize all the issues addressed in prospective studies currently being conducted.
We recommend reading the conclusion of this meeting, you will find below the section on points of convergence and divergence between the different prospective studies, as well as questions that still remain unanswered.
Momagri editorial board
Convergences, divergences, and pending debates
Convergences, divergences, and pending debates
• Global food availability in 2050 is not so much a production problem as a local food access problem, which turns food security attention to the needs of the poor, urban and rural, and particularly of poor farmers.
Another field of divergences relates to the implicit model of farming in the future (if any?):
• Understanding the situation of poor rural people, in particular farmers, and their perspectives for the future remains a huge challenge for conceptualization, data gathering and assessments, etc.
• Ecosystem degradation and climate change impacts will put more pressure on poor farmers. Divergences also appeared within the group. Some were related to different worldviews: public vs. private goods or investment, for example. A public or a common good, even if it has been defined by economists, may not mean exactly the same depending on who uses this expression, in which context, from which standpoint
and according to either a cultural or a political background. These worldviews do not necessarily need to be reconciled with one another, but their impacts on recommendations and decisions must be studied further.
family farming, pluriactivity, agro-business, or new entrepreneurship farms? Does "small-scale farming" actually refer to the concept of "scale" or to other elements, such as types of technological means, skills, outputs, etc.? Will future agricultural systems be diverse? Are there normative models? Other differences are related to the fact that food sovereignty, food security and self-sufficiency do not mean the same depending on the context, the cultural background and the political goals. It is necessary to clarify the use
of these terms and their implications in public policies and trade negotiations.
Various points remained pending, and appeared as very relevant fields for further research. The group proposed that research and R&D within Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology Systems should be organized around and directed towards the three following areas:
1. Looking beyond the agricultural sector
Agricultural production must be considered to be embedded in the overall structural transformation of economies, taking into account strategies and public choices in terms of political economy.
Agriculture is one sector of the national, regional and global economy. Its development is strongly linked to other activities within the food chain (up to consumers), and to the different occupations that contribute to vibrant rural areas.
Several issues therefore require further analysis and research:
The share of agriculture in the active population and in GDP is generally seen as decreasing in the future. Is it possible to change such a trend? Should this be attempted? This question concerns not only investment in agriculture, but also spatial patterns of development, infrastructure and services in rural areas, and the attractiveness of urban areas, etc.
2. Taking into account distributional aspects and development models
Reducing losses and waste along the food chain might play a key role in overall and local balances.
In particular, what are the means for managing waste at the level of end users?
Future patterns of food consumption, particularly in developing or emerging countries where food habits are changing in a globalized world, and "nutrition transition" issues are important for public health, as well as for defining production priorities. Is there a priority for strong food policy incentives?
Increasing urbanization, which is very likely to occur, will put pressure on not only arable land, but also on food habits, consumption patterns and even political powers. How can urban bias be avoided in policy priorities, e.g. compensating for price variability, incentives for agricultural production, and mastering land tenure and land markets, especially in peri-urban areas?
Energy demand cannot be met by agricultural production only. Investing in R&D for more efficient biofuels may be unavoidable, but it could have adverse effects on the extension of agricultural land (see FAO Outlook). How can the impact of developing second and third generation biofuels and green chemistry be better assessed?
Even if global balances are reached in agriculture and food at the global level for 9 billion inhabitants, who wins and who loses, depending on the pathway chosen? The distributional question is a controversial one that needs further investigation.
There is, for instance, a need to clarify the relationship between the increase in income, especially for poor farmers, and the increase in productivity.
Nevertheless, if the increase in productivity has to do with agricultural technology, the increase in production depends more on policies and on the role of the other stakeholders in the supply chain than on farmers alone. This requires placing agricultural production within the complexity of food systems in order to understand the value chain, farmers' organizations, the concentration of buyers, retailers, competition regulation, the formation of markets, price instability, etc.
There is a need to improve knowledge regarding the diversity of small-scale farmers and their constraints and opportunities, and to tailor research to their specific needs (e.g. orphan crops). The relative roles of private and public research to satisfy those needs must be assessed.
R&D and extension require steady investment over time (not just in response to crises). Who will finance this? The mechanisms of aid from donors must be studied further in order to ensure that they can be rooted in the coherence with overall development strategies. How can roles be balanced between public interventions and private strategies?
Investment strategies would benefit from a better understanding of future labor issues in agriculture and other sectors, of pluriactivity in rural areas, and of the role of migration to towns and abroad. They would also benefit from a better understanding of the cooperative movement, and of local leadership and institutions for the use of these investments.
3. Changing the paradigm for agriculture
If "business as usual" is not an option, there is a need for new approaches to productivity that are still the object of discussion:
Resilience vs. productivity?
1 Bernard Hubert, Jacques Brossier, Patrick Caron, Pierre Fabre, Hartwig de Haen, Benoît Labbouz, Michel Petit, Sébastien Treyer.
Does resilience mean maintaining adaptation capacities in an uncertain future? How does this translate from socioeconomic and biophysical viewpoints? Can we limit ourselves to technical change, productivity, and sustainable agriculture, etc., or should we address broader issues such as the role of agriculture in increasing income for poor farmers taking into account their other activities? On the whole, do we deal with increasing yields or incomes? Or both? And how?
Biomass productivity vs. multi-functionality?
How do we assess performance? For example, what are "better seeds" for the future: more productive
varieties? Plants that are more resistant to disease? More flexible to climate uncertainties? More resilient? Easy to produce at farm or community level? Seeds of a single and stable variety or a population set of seeds from the same species?
Targeting poverty alleviation vs. decreasing vulnerability?
What makes small farmers so sensitive to the risks of adverse weather events, climate uncertainty, unstable markets and dependency on external inputs that they leave agriculture to join the masses of poor daily workers in rural areas or cities? How can we break such vicious circles?