Opinion: Feeding people on this warming Earth requires future-proofing our agri-food systems. Here’s how.


It’s easy to feel overwhelmed these days. A deepening regional conflict in Ukraine, superimposed by an ongoing pandemic, threatens a humanitarian crisis that will spread across continents. The latest climate science confirms that we are now living with the bleak climate forecasts of the past few decades. Fear of an uncertain future is testing the shared values ​​that have built and sustained the global institutions that protect our collective security. All of these pressures are weighing on our agriculture and food systems with unprecedented force – a daunting prospect that should spur us to invest now to solve tomorrow’s problems.

When leaders gathered at the United Nations Summit on Food Systems last year, they called on the world to transform our agriculture and food systems to be healthier, more inclusive and more resilient. Many strategies have been developed to incentivize climate-friendly food production and sustainable diets by changing public policies, value chains and financial flows. Agricultural innovation has been heralded as a key accelerator for a healthier and fairer future.

Yet greatly increased investment in the systems underpinning agricultural innovation is required if we are to tackle climate change, fight hunger and malnutrition, and revitalize rural livelihoods. Our existing agricultural research and development (R&D) funding model is not up to the task and the global R&D gap is significant. Offsetting the adverse impacts of climate change on agriculture may require a 118% increase in public R&D spending from baseline. In the Global South, there is an estimated $15.2 billion per year R&D funding gap through 2030 to meet hunger and climate goals, and low-income countries risk gaining ground as “scientific have-nots.” to lose.

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Not only do we need more and more balanced investment in research and development of agri-food systems, we also need a more participatory model that uses collaborative knowledge systems. Already today, using the collective power of international research networks, scientists are using environmental site information to identify genes associated with drought response in specific contexts, helping to mobilize genetics for climate resilience. Research groups are bridging the gap between technology development and farm-scale innovation through new research on farm systems, value chains, and decision-making and incentives. Local communities and value chain actors are co-creating solutions to local challenges and are rapidly prototyping local challenges with support from governments and leading research centers, such as the partnership between Mexico and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in the center-based MasAgro program.

We can do more to unleash the knowledge and creativity of the research community. Many people focus on “success stories” of breakthrough technologies, but it is research and development, consumed by stakeholders, that drives innovation on farms and in communities and sectors. We must go beyond introducing innovation through unilateral action and embrace collaborative, research-based action by different stakeholders.

The experienced scientists from national and international agricultural research institutes are well placed to support locally led agricultural innovations. When agricultural stakeholders engage in R&D, scientists can work with them to test new technologies and practices and find those that make a meaningful difference under local conditions. Researchers in the region are well versed in “learning by doing” through continuous iteration of participatory research, testing, validation and scaling.

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To more accurately identify critical intervention points and viable solutions, we need to redouble coordination between scientists, farmers and other actors in the agri-food system. Policy makers and business leaders are critical to transforming the agri-food system, yet they often lack the information and decision support needed to take strategic action in complex, dynamic situations. Through scenario-based methods, scientists and their public and private sector partners use data and models to develop strategic and tactical plans and investment strategies for multiple partners, which should clearly identify public and private complementary investments.

Our research facilities are evolving to deliver future-oriented research and development, but need to accelerate the adoption of fundamentally new approaches alongside existing capabilities. After World War II, the world realized that investing in science is a cornerstone of prosperity. Looking back on 75 years of incredible scientific achievements, priorities are shifting from increasing commodity production and meeting caloric needs to promoting sustainability, inclusion and equity through innovation in the agri-food system.

The best performing solutions will emerge from integrated systems approaches and a paradigm shift from efficiency to resilience. The food security threats arising from the Ukraine crisis require that we think and act in both the short and long term. Immediate crisis response requires shrewdly deployed, coordinated policies that improve food production and access to food. As we work to stabilize food supplies, we must also accelerate our transition to agri-food system resilience through investments ranging from well-functioning value chains and agronomic support systems to farm diversification and gender empowerment.

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Future proofing is no longer optional. We are in uncharted territory, facing more unpredictable crises and facing more difficult trade-offs. Our planet faces deteriorating agro-ecosystems, increasing pest and disease pressures, and climatic variability. Future stability and prosperity require that we deepen our commitment to collaborative innovation focused on future-proofing our agri-food systems.

The multiplying effects of the Ukraine crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic have revealed the extent of volatility and disruption in the world as it is now. The research and development communities must move from incremental, isolated advances to transformative, integrative research and development. Every short-term step we take can be seen as a down payment in the longer term. We can no longer be satisfied with solving yesterday’s tomorrow’s problems. We must solve tomorrow’s problems today.

Elizabeth Cousens is the third President and Chief Executive Officer of the United Nations Foundation, leading the next generation of the Foundation’s work in support of the United Nations.

Bram Govaerts is Director General of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center and Professor at Cornell University.



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