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OPINION: Are food systems ‘broken’ – or just out of sync?

by Claudia Sadoff | CGIAR
Friday, 16 October 2020 09:35 GMT

Farmers harvest rice at a field on World Food Day in Bhaktapur, Nepal October 16, 2020. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Farmers need help to not just fight hunger but improve nutrition, cut climate change, safeguard biodiversity and reduce poverty

Claudia Sadoff is managing director for research delivery and impact at CGIAR System Organization.

It may be true that COVID-19 has exposed weaknesses in our global food systems that have forced agriculture to adapt and reprioritize once again. But it is overly simplistic to declare the food system “broken”, as has become a popular refrain

Such a narrative fails to recognize how our world and its needs from this system are continually changing – and growing. 

Back in the 1960s, when the world was facing a rising hunger problem, the agriculture sector stepped up to the challenge. With extensive new crop breeding programs, along with investments in irrigation and agricultural management practices that boosted productivity, agricultural innovation is estimated to have saved more than a billion lives.

Today, the challenges facing farmers, distributors, researchers, and policymakers are infinitely more complex. The agricultural sector is being tasked to take on its share of responsibility to tackle climate change and situate itself much more positively in the broader land and water ecosystems within which farming takes place, all while feeding a population that has doubled over the past half century.

Our food systems are not broken; they are out of sync with what we need from them now. What is needed is a radical realignment of our efforts to make certain that we are progressing not only towards ending hunger, but providing better nutrition, mitigating climate change, promoting inclusion, safeguarding biodiversity, and reducing poverty. With these goals in mind, agriculture can once more rise to the occasion.

Just as science is coming to the fore to develop a vaccine and help manage the COVID-19 pandemic, innovation and science is the way forward to make our food systems fit for purpose once again.

To do this, we need a systematic approach to innovation. In particular, there are three areas that deserve dedicated policies, more funding, and additional research to bring our food systems back into sync.

First, we need to go back to the building blocks of life and bring to bear the promise of genomics. A clear indication of the way in which global food systems are off track is declining crop diversity caused by a reliance on staple crops and monoculture, and the degradation of natural environments.

With more research funding and political support, food systems can benefit from advances in genomics for improved breeding and diversity.

At CGIAR, for example, researchers are attempting to realign our food systems with planetary boundaries by developing new genetic plant varieties of cacao that are more resistant to climate threats. This is crucial to the cacao-based economy, including the nearly six million smallholder farmers, who produce up to 95 per cent of the world’s cacao. 

Second, the agricultural sector needs support to adopt and embed principles of agroecology. Food production cannot escape its responsibilities to, and reliance on, natural resources, and so food systems need to be more closely aligned with the ecological context in which agriculture takes place.

One of CGIAR’s projects, which spans across Africa, Asia, and Latin America, is establishing climate-smart villages to test innovative agricultural practices that help farmers increase their production, while limiting their impact on the environment. As reliable evidence is generated, successful solutions can be scaled-up or adapted to other contexts.

Finally, the agriculture sector must take a birds-eye view of food, land, and water systems to develop solutions that balance human needs with planetary resources.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that disrupting ecosystems in a deeply interconnected world can have disastrous consequences.

To that end, the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems is conducting research to demonstrate how science and innovation can contribute to sustainable agriculture that can simultaneously feed more people. 

These linked areas should underpin agricultural research for development, both by the newly reformed CGIAR, the world’s largest publicly funded agricultural network, and partners that share our common goal.

We can take confidence from recognizing that the agriculture sector has a proven capacity to evolve dynamically and to adopt innovations to tackle global challenges. It managed to stave off famine 60 years ago. And today, working collaboratively, it has the potential to help bring the world back from the brink of the climate emergency in a way that leaves no one behind.