CHICAGO: From the worst drought in four decades threatening famine in the Horn of Africa to extreme heat in South Asia, war in Ukraine and the uneven pace of pandemic recovery, global food systems are under extraordinary pressure.
The combined result is expected to leave more than 320 million people severely food insecure this year, up from 135 million two years ago.
Until recently, efforts to strengthen such an overburdened global food system have focused on a single aspect, such as developing more resilient crop varieties, reforming subsidies or reducing food waste, but not every system is as strong as its weakest link.
New varieties, technologies or incentives to increase yields are meaningless if there is no water to irrigate the soil, or if there is no infrastructure to bring the harvest to the market.
Policy makers and scientists are increasingly recognizing the need for a new approach that considers all aspects from farm to fork, a philosophy that goes beyond individual products, and even beyond agriculture. as a sector.
A “systems approach” allows for a better understanding of the bigger picture by considering the broader context in which food is produced, distributed and consumed, and how these systems operate within related systems such as health. and energy.
Just as G7 agriculture ministers have warned against short-term responses to the food crisis that come at the expense of medium- and long-term sustainability, the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) believes that a systems approach is needed to minimize the trade-offs and unintended consequences that have contributed to food crises for decades.
Simply put, systems thinking is a holistic approach that considers the interaction of all elements, assessing and addressing both the potential benefits and drawbacks of new developments.
For example, when applied to food, it raises questions such as: Does this new seed or practice require additional natural resources and are they available? Is a particular innovation accessible and practical for both women and men? What impact will this have on the environment, trade, food prices, livelihoods and nutrition?
Adopting such a framework can then inspire a so-called innovation systems approach, which fosters productive engagement between key actors, including farmers, governments, businesses, universities and research institutes, and directs more targeted investments towards effective innovations in accordance with the recommendations of the G7.
The major advantage of such a systemic approach is that it can be applied at all levels.
Globally, rebalancing food systems requires a comprehensive understanding of our natural resources around the world and how they intersect with food production in different regions under different scenarios.
Research shows that agriculture, which produces energy crops as well as food, is one of the main contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, which means that agricultural innovations should be considered alongside energy innovations to ensure that one does not compromise the other.
Understanding how innovations and decisions made in one country can have ripple effects thousands of miles away is facilitated through models such as the International Model for Agricultural Commodity and Trade Policy Analysis (Impact), while By linking food systems to land and water systems through disciplinary research can help manage agriculture’s contribution to climate change.
At the national level, responding to national priorities by understanding the different levers at play can unlock multiple benefits.
For example, when Bangladesh identified a gender gap in agriculture in 2012, the government worked with CGIAR scientists to develop the Agriculture, Nutrition and Gender Linkages (ANGeL) program to achieve its double goal of increased women’s empowerment and improved nutrition.
The program included agricultural training as well as nutritional behavior change communication and gender awareness sessions to increase women’s empowerment, diversify production and improve the quality of household diets.
Finally, a systems approach more effectively addresses localized needs by addressing the multiple factors that contribute to and aggravate poverty and hunger.
For example, bean breeders from the Pan-Africa Bean Research Alliance (Pabra) developed a demand-driven research model that resulted in more than 500 new bean varieties based on farmers’ different needs, tastes and preferences. and consumers.
By refining agricultural research with an end-to-end approach, scientists have developed the new varieties most likely to succeed with consumers and therefore adopted by farmers, doubling bean productivity in Uganda and Ethiopia between 2008 and 2018.
In the end, people don’t just eat the food: they grow it, sell it, buy it, cook it, and share it. Thus, transforming food systems requires dealing with such complexity by harnessing science and technology, learning from analytics and data, and interpreting ambiguity and potential conflict to develop multiple solutions to address challenges. interconnected.
These benefits could be fully realized with increased investment in research across the agri-food system, which, in turn, starts with a shift in mindset towards more systemic thinking.
MARCO FERRONI / IPS
The author is chairman of the board of directors of the CGIAR system.