Delft, The Netherlands, 30 Jun 2016

Roundtable on placing sustainability at the heart of agricultural development

On 14 June 2016, a roundtable discussion on placing sustainability at the heart of agricultural development was held at UNESCO-IHE. The aim was to identify future solutions and collaborative opportunities that support a transition to sustainable intensification of agricultural systems for poverty alleviation and livelihood improvement. The roundtable was co-hosted by the CGIAR programme on Water, Land and Ecosystems and UNESCO-IHE.

Putting Agriculture at the Heart of Sustainable Development

The roundtable brought together representatives from CGIAR programme on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) and several other CGIAR research programs, Dutch organizations as well as invited guests from Europe. They discussed the topic of sustainability and agriculture, and the importance of sustainable intensification for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“There is increasing political will to prioritize sustainability, as demonstrated in initiatives such as the Sustainable Development Goals, Climate Change Agreement as well as regional initiatives such as the 20x20 initiative or AFR100,” said Debbie Bossio, WLE Flagship Leader and lead CIAT Soil scientist “On the other hand, agriculture development is still centered on technical fixes that focus on improving yield and productivity.”

The main conclusion from the roundtable discussion was that in order to meet the SDGs, agriculture development will have to be come more sustainable. What is clear is that sustainability is no longer just a development concept, but rather at the heart of global growth and prosperity. There is a growing recognition that issues such as climate change, migration, population growth, urbanization, food production, energy and natural resource management are interconnected and intertwined and that they therefore cannot be addressed in isolation.

Panel discussion

The workshop included a panel discussion as well as working groups around four areas that brought together different perspectives on the question ‘does agriculture have a sustainable future?’ The main conclusion was that for change to happen, new mental models that can reconcile the complex development challenges and the future of agriculture are necessary.

Much of the migration from sub-Saharan Africa is rooted in land degradation, but years of investing in agriculture have not stopped the tide of migrants. The challenge is making smarter investments in areas that can have a wider impact, not necessarily by prioritizing one sector. 

One of the complexities facing agriculture is to reconcile large-scale agriculture models developed in the west with the realities of small-scale farming in most of the developing world. The majority of farming systems, particularly in sub-Sarahan Africa and the developing world, are smallholder farms, central to local livelihoods.

As Joan Kagwanja, WLE Steering Committee Member stressed, “if we want to engineer development then we need to start where the people are.” While there is a lot of land and potential to bring agriculture under sustainable intensification, we need to understand who owns the land and who has access to it. 80% of the land is under customary title, much of it not legally recognized by government, which is an issue. The current model of governments handing over land to private companies to help make it more productive have largely failed, because there is little local buy-in. A new way to look at tenure from a local perspective needs to be encouraged. As one participant questioned: “We also need to look at who needs to change their practices. In terms of land tenure who needs to change their attitudes and practices around customary land? Is it really the farmers or do companies and governments need to change.”

The push to intensify agriculture and the need for biodiversity conservation need to be reconciled. The current model is framed as a juxtaposition; it is either one or the other. Participants expressed the view that healthy ecosystems are at the heart of food production. One example of this concerned fertilizer: it is necessary to enhance nutrients and food production, but current fertilizer practices cause many of the environmental problems. 

Ken Irvine, Professor of Aquatic Ecosystems at UNESCO-IHE, pointed out crops need nutrients in the ground. Yet, adding more nutrients brings risks for water quality.  With increasing production gained from chemical fertilisers comes a disproprortionate increases in nutrient losses to water.

The discussion also raised the inherent tensions and conflicting interests between the objectives of economic growth, ecosystem preservation and poverty reduction. As one participant mentioned, we cannot think that this will simply be addressed by finding win-win solutions, but rather through identifying different types of incentives, punitive and positive. Different actors will need to make different concessions and comprises. 

Working group discussions allowed participants an opportunity to discuss challenges, opportunities and potential collaboration around a number of themes. Some of the main points that arose included:

  • Smart local agriculture: Many groups focused on the need to have “smart” local solutions that recognize an ecosystem and multi-functional perspective and take into account men, women and the youth.
  • More multi-stakeholder processes: Solutions need to incorporate multiple perspectives and ensure different groups are not inadvertently affected.
  • Rethinking capacity development: Capacity development is at the heart of change – strengthening knowledge, skills and awareness of different actors to be able to respond to challenges more effectively. There was a call for new kinds of capacity development that bring into question who is being trained and by whom.
  • Understanding the realities on the ground: Governments and donors need to create more flexible and inclusive policies that can respond to more complex issues.
  • Monitoring and data collection: A call for improved monitoring that can feed into policy and decision-making processes is essential for adaptive management and flexible policies.

Gretchen Daily, WLE Steering Committee Member, concluded, “The future of this world relies upon the power of the “we” and how we ultimately cooperate and work together for change. For research projects an essential element is the principle co-design to accelerate innovation and find multiple entry points for change.”


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