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Taking Sustainable Agriculture and Food to a New Level of Development

Posted by Steve Waddell in Change, Leadership, Net Dev on September 28, 2010

Transforming the agriculture and food system into a sustainable one is something some smart and diverse people have been working on for some time. I’ve been talking with them over the past year, and it seems to me that the system is ready for a new stage of development…but there are several blockages that need addressing.

I really know nothing about agriculture or the food system from a technical point of view. My thoughts arise from an unusual co-incidence of meetings and conversations since late last year, rather than from any in-depth investigation. This includes:

My thoughts are further spurred by the just-released report by the Asia Society and the International Rice Research Institute, titled Sustaining Food Security in Asia.

Collective challenges to transformation

Transforming the food and agriculture system into a sustainable one was an innovative idea in the 1990s. That idea blossomed into many concrete initiatives over the last decade—most of the examples were founded then. They passed the proof of concept stage and many are experiencing rapid growth. However, they are still miniscule in terms of the overall ag-food system. Getting to scale and transforming that system requires a set of skills and strategies that complement and advance those of these examples.

A number of core challenges include:

The definitional challenge: The array of influences on my thinking make me further wonder about how “the ag-food system” is defined. Some speak of “farm to fork”, others from “farm to feces”. Some have big problems with Genetically Modified Organisms and very large farms; others say they can be accommodated. Some strongly emphasize local, others are part of local-to-global. Who are the stakeholders? This might be so controversial that "the system" can’t be big enough to advance.

The financing challenge: the need for mainstream investors to recognize the emerging sustainable ag-food system as an interesting investment, and the ability of those in the system to present it as such.

The scaling systems challenge: the organizing infrastructure that has got the initiatives to their current stage of development is simply inadequate to take them to system transformation.

The public policy challenge: the need to have governments and inter-governmental organizations like the Food and Agriculture Organization, develop policy that favors a sustainable ag-food system.

The markets challenge: creating mass markets for sustainable ag-food products.

These challenges will require a much more significant collective effort – the initiatives individually can certainly not do it. And their very low level of interaction today will not generate what is needed.

A modest proposal

To advance development of the system, I’ve suggested in a concept note an action research investigations to produce:

  • a “complex whole system” perspective, believing that participants all have only a partial view of who is doing what;
  • an assessment by people in the system about their collective level of development and opportunities and challenges;
  • a draft strategy for addressing the key opportunities and challenges, and
  • a Stewardship Team of stakeholders to advance the strategy’s development.

The proposition that I developed resonated with Krijn Poppe who is Chief Science Officer at the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality Secretary General at the European Association of Agricultural Economists, and Research Manager at LEI, part of Wageningen UR.  He is also co-editor of a very worthwhile read Transitions towards sustainable agriculture and food chains in peri-urban areas.

But so far, I’ve got no firm takers for the proposal. What are some of the possible reasons? Some mixture of the following, I suppose:

  • I’ve misjudged the development stage and opportunity…either it isn’t there yet, or I’ve not noticed that it’s already addressing these challenges in a reasonable way;
  • I’ve badly communicated it, or communicated it to the wrong people to advance it;
  • The proposed activities aren’t seen as a useful step towards the desired outcomes;
  • People are overwhelmed with their own individual initiatives, and cannot take time to think about the system;
  • People have become attached to their individual initiatives in a competitive or proprietary way and are not interested in the system goals;
  • Taking the system to a new stage of development requires new leadership – people who have successfully initiated are not the ones who can respond to the new challenges;
  • People fear that the proposal is designed to produce some sort of "grand plan" that will produce an inappropriate drive for coordination and bureaucracy, as opposed to what I would call significantly enhanced “system coherence”.

The new AS/IRRI report estimates $409 billion/year is needed for investment in agriculture in developing countries’ agriculture. How much of that will be for the sustainable ag-food system? What are your thoughts about current opportunities?


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