Despite some $60 billion being invested annually into agricultural research and innovation in the Global South, it is falling short of its ultimate ambition – delivering sustainable and equitable food systems for all.
Recent research shows that only seven per cent of this investment has tangible environmental objectives, and of this seven percent, only half includes social and human objectives, indicating that the fight to end hunger needs not only more funding, but smarter funding as well.
And it stands to reason. Breakthroughs in agriculture, such as a new crop variety or digital applications, will miss the mark if they are not developed with all interconnected factors in mind, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, gender inequality as well as the importance of building social capital and understanding barriers of adoption. Reorienting innovation processes to ensure that social and environmental implications are thoroughly considered is critical if we are to transform agrifood systems to deliver on all fronts.
By incorporating the consequences of innovations right from the outset as a new project is being designed, impact investors and those managing such projects can focus on the most impactful discoveries and manage trade-offs across multiple domains, such as productivity, environment, social and human dimensions, with greater levels of transparency.
A global set of principles recently developed by an international taskforce offers the chance to redesign the innovation process to give everyone – from investors to regulators and beneficiaries – the confidence that new agricultural solutions will maximise social, environmental, and economic impact and better manage trade-offs.
For starters, an agreed set of principles encourages the entire research and innovation chain to design projects that proactively reveal the potential for unintended consequences, identify the “winners and losers” resulting from innovations, and consider trade-offs.
Going through this process at the start of a research project helps reduce risk, increasing the likelihood of the eventual innovations being widely adopted and delivering sustainable and equitable impact. Low levels of adoption have long been a frustration for researchers and others developing innovations for small-scale farmers.
In the new framework, principles are divided between those relating to the innovation process itself, for example, ensuring fair and transparent decision-making, and those related to the outcomes of innovation. Identifying potential “losers” from agricultural developments, such as poor labourers whose field jobs are displaced by new machinery, is important because it allows for compensation policies, including social protection, to be considered before innovations are scaled up.
A global set of principles also allows innovation managers and researchers to tangibly demonstrate that their innovations are considering and addressing a range of potential environmental and social objectives. They also allow them to demonstrate progress in considering and addressing these objectives.
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Applying these principles, investors and researchers would be encouraged to reflect on the contribution their work would make to food security, nutrition and health, poverty reduction, and environmental protection. It would also factor in social considerations such as working conditions, inclusivity, animal welfare and adaptation to climate change. This can help target investment and R&D by aligning with national and global targets under the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), for example.
Finally, a harmonized international set of principles for agrifood innovation will allow early adopters to stay ahead of the curve on sustainability with a transparent assessment of the quality of their work, according to a standardized scoring system.
Global guidance and support for agrifood innovations, such as the principles framework, could be transformative if widely adopted, becoming a self-perpetuating way to direct funding towards the most sustainable and equitable innovations. It also offers a way to distinguish genuine efforts at developing sustainable solutions from greenwashing.
This can only work with the support of a critical mass, which requires the mainstreaming of these principles by early advocates. But the trailblazers defining best practice now are helping pave the way to a sustainable transformation of food systems for the future.
Prof. P. V. Vara Prasad, Ph. D., is Commissioner of the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture Intensification (CoSAI) and co-Chair of the Principles and Metrics Task Force. He is also a distinguished university professor and director of the Feed the Future Sustainable Intensification Innovation Lab at Kansas State University.
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