These days, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. A worsening regional conflict in Ukraine, overlain onto a lingering pandemic, threatens a cascading humanitarian crisis across continents. The latest climate science confirms that we are now living with the dire climate predictions made in preceding decades. Fear of an uncertain future is testing the shared values that built and maintain the global institutions that safeguard our collective security. All of these pressures are bearing down with unprecedented force on our agriculture and food systems – a terrifying prospect that should drive us to invest now in solving the problems of tomorrow.
When world leaders gathered last year at the United Nations Food Systems Summit, they issued a global call to transform our agri-food systems to be more healthy, inclusive and resilient. Many strategies were conceived to incentivize climate-smart food production and sustainable diets by shifting public policies, value chains, and financial flows. Agricultural innovation was heralded as an essential accelerator toward a healthier and fairer future.
Yet, greatly increased investment in the systems underpinning agricultural innovation is required if we are to tackle climate change, address hunger and malnutrition, and revive rural livelihoods. Our existing model of funding agricultural research and development (R&D) is not up to the task and the global R&D gap is substantial. Offsetting adverse climate change impacts on agriculture may require an 118% increase above baseline public R&D expenditure. In the Global South, there is an estimated R&D finance gap of $15.2 billion per year to 2030 for achieving hunger and climate goals and low-income countries are at high risk of losing further ground as ‘scientific have-nots.’
Not only do we need more, and more balanced, investment in agri-food system R&D, we need a more participatory model that leverages collaborative knowledge systems. Today, drawing on the collective power of international research networks, scientists are already using environmental site information to identify genes associated with drought response in specific contexts, helping mobilize genetics for climate resilience. Research groups are bridging the gap between technology development and farm-level innovation through new research in farm systems, value chains, and decision-making and incentives. Local communities and value chain actors are co-designing and rapidly prototyping solutions to local challenges with support from governments and leading researching centers, like the partnership between Mexico and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in the hub-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 stakeholder-engaged R&D that allows innovation to take hold on farms and within communities and sectors. We must go beyond introducing innovation through unilateral action to embracing collaborative, research-based action by diverse stakeholders.
The experienced scientists within national and international agricultural research institutions are well positioned to support locally-led agricultural innovation. When agriculture stakeholders participate 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. In-region researchers are well-versed in ‘learning by doing’ through continuous iteration of participatory research, testing, validation, and scaling.
To more precisely identify critical intervention points and viable solutions, we need to double-down on coordination among scientists, farmers and other agri-food system actors. Policy makers and business leaders are essential to agri-food system transformation, yet they commonly lack the necessary information and decision tools to take strategic action within complex, dynamic situations. Through scenario-based methodologies, scientists and their public and private sector partners are leveraging data and models to develop multi-partner strategic and tactical plans and investment strategies that should clearly identify public and private complementary investments.
Our research institutions are evolving to deliver future-focused R&D, but must accelerate their adoption of fundamentally new approaches alongside existing capabilities. In the wake of WW II, the world recognized that investing in science is a cornerstone of prosperity. Looking back at seventy-five years of incredible scientific achievements, priorities are shifting from increasing commodity production and meeting caloric needs to propelling sustainability, inclusion, and equity through agri-food system innovation.
The most powerful solutions will emerge from integrated systems approaches and a paradigm shift from efficiency to resilience. Food security threats emerging from the Ukraine crisis demand that we think and act with both the near- and long-term in mind. Immediate crisis response requires skillfully deployed, coordinated policy measures that increase food production and access. As we work to stabilize food supplies, we must also speed up our transition toward agri-food system resilience through investments ranging from well-functioning value chains and agronomic support systems to agricultural diversification and gender empowerment.
Future-proofing is no longer optional. We are in unfamiliar terrain, confronting more unpredictable crises, and navigating more difficult tradeoffs. Our planet is facing degrading agro-ecosystems, increasing pest and disease pressure, and climatic volatility. Future stability and prosperity demands 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 scale of volatility and disruption of the world as it is now. The research and development communities must move beyond incremental, siloed progress toward transformative, integrative R&D. Every short-term step we take can be seen as a down payment for the longer term. We can no longer be satisfied with solving yesterday’s problems tomorrow. We need to solve tomorrow’s problems today.
Elizabeth Cousens is the United Nations Foundation’s third President and Chief Executive Officer leading the Foundation’s next generation of work to support the United Nations.
Bram Govaerts is director general of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center and a professor at large at Cornell University.