21 January 2017

Is there a new paradigm of agricultural research?

Do the growing awareness that our agri-food system has multiple roles to play, the new services to agriculture that other economic sectors can now provide, and the increasing weight of large private corporations contribute to establish a new paradigm of agricultural research? If the answer to this question is yes, then the issue is to whom this change will benefit and the extent to which it help in making our agri-food system more sustainable economically, socially and environmentally.

An article published by the Secretariat of the Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR) suggests that a series of recent events (e.g. the Third Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development and the 5th Global Forum of Leaders in Agricultural Science and Technology) demonstrate that there is a new paradigm of agricultural research.

While the main objective of agricultural research has been, for decades, to increase agricultural productivity and production, objectives emerging from presentations and discussions at these events point, according to the analysis conducted by the GFAR Secretariat, towards a new set of global priorities :

  1. “Adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change to agriculture;

  2. Controlling the spread of trans-boundary animal, zoonotic and plant diseases and pests;

  3. The sustainable use of natural resources, especially land and water, for agriculture and forestry, and controlling environmental degradation;

  4. Managing agricultural biodiversity;

  5. Improving agricultural products, commodities trade and market chains especially for food safety and quality.”

These global priorities, according to the authors, are complemented by a series of national objectives dealing inter alia with urban food supply, livelihoods and job creation, environment and waste management and renewable energy generation. This is the result of a long due recognition of a role of agricultural and food systems that goes far beyond just ensuring availability of food and other raw materials.

Through this change of perspective, there appears to be an increased awareness that innovation in agri-food systems cannot just rely on better and increased use of inputs and equipment, but that there is a need for developing more knowledge-intensive innovative technologies that can help adapt to and mitigate climate change, an issue that has now come to the top of the global agenda.

As has been the case historically (read here pages 3-5) new directions in research are closely linked to changes taking place in the industrial and services sectors and they give an increasing weight to the use of new technologies developed in domains such as “biotechnology, nanotechnology, information and communications technologies (ICT) and geo-spatial technologies”. They also create more opportunities for developing solutions tailored for specific local conditions and have led to the emergence of a new generation of new localised technology and advisory businesses.

This new situation, according to the authors, creates opportunities in two very different directions. One is the development of a high-tech, capital-intensive, high-input, resource and technology intensive, market-oriented agriculture. The other is the establishment of a low and localised or no input, sustainable, agro-ecologic agriculture. This could potentially lead to the emergence of a new type of dual agri-food system.

In a context of very limited budgetary resources, public research is facing severe constraints in pursuing its activities and has lost ground to private research led by large private multinational corporations. This tends to favour the first of the two directions that attracts much higher investments. This trend is also encouraged by the emphasis given by a growing number of governments to developing competitive agri-food chains in the hand of private agri-business geared towards either global export markets or food supply for a growing number of urban consumers.

This evolution, in our view, at, is a largely undesirable evolution, as this type of model does not really contribute to achieving the objectives mentioned earlier in the GFAR analysis, the thrust in those initiatives, being increased production, and more importantly, increased profits. The choice of technologies could of course, to some extent, be influenced by consumer preferences for healthier food and a more environment and climate friendly food system. But so far, only a minority - although growing - of consumers, let’s admit it, is mobilised on these goals, the mass of consumers, particularly the poorest, looking primarily for cheap food.

In the face of this dominent movement, “alternate urban-rural marketing structures, such as farmers’ markets, producer companies and cooperatives, online direct sales by producers and others, are evolving as marketing structures especially for environmentally-friendly produced products”.

The GFAR analysis continues by rightly pointing at the need “for new avenues and forms of agricultural research in addition to the conventional avenues of public and private sector research, technology generation and dissemination for whole agri-food food and value chains”. New forms of agricultural innovation, authors write, have been emerging that combine collective actions by local communities, small businesses who tap on the easier access to information through the web, which often promote more sustainable agricultural practices, in particular ecological farming.

But, let’s face it, in most cases, these initiatives remain rather marginal and are at a disadvantage compared to dominant approaches (read our article “Are existing food and agricultural policies supportive to local sustainable food systems?”).

More encouraging, an article by a senior CGIAR official, stresses the support that research provides to farmers in terms of “tailored information about what to plant, when to plant, when to fertilise and when to harvest, and [trains them] in how to interpret and apply the forecasts to their day-to-day farming”. In the same article, the author reports on efforts made by research to develop new and more efficient processing technologies that can be used by small rural agro-processing enterprises and thus lead to the creation of jobs in rural areas and generate more value added and wealth. This is more promising, provided action is taken to make this information, this advice and these technologies accessible to the mass of the rural population.

In conclusion, there may be a new awareness of the role of the agri-food system and of the implications on what a new paradigm of agricultural research should be. But the actual research conducted is a result of a process of resources allocation that does not give equal weight to each of the global objectives assigned to agricultural research but rather reflects the distribution of power among various stakeholders.

In practice, agriculture research is overwhelmingly dominated by private interests and the new agriculture that is likely to emerge in the future will be more high-tech, capital-intensive, resource and technology intensive and market-oriented agriculture, which may be more climate and environmental friendly, but will certainly be lead by large corporations that have the overall objective of profit making, be it profit generated by firms within the agri-food system itself or profit created by corporations that lead data and information-based technologies, nano technologies and biotechnology.

This evolution is, once more, likely to leave out the poor and the weak and will therefore not achieve much in terms of some of the declared objectives, e.g. improved livelihoods, job creation, poverty reduction and hunger eradication. Unless the State or other forms of collective organisation mobilise resources to ensure the mass of the rural population is not left marginalised and excluded from change.


To know more:

  1. -Bi Jieying and Ajit Maru, The changing paradigm of agricultural research and innovation, The GFAR Blog, 2017

  2. -Kwesi Atta-Krah, Focusing on Future of Food: What’s Next for Global Agricultural Research?, Interpress Services, 2016

  3. -Website of the Third Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development

  4. -Website of the  5th Global Forum of Leaders in Agricultural Science and Technology

Earlier articles on related to the topic:

  1. -Scientific research under the influence of private interests, 2016

  2. -Food, Environment and Health, 2014

  3. -Development of research on a sustainable and accessible agricultural technology, 2013


Last update:    January 2017

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