Agricultural scientists get down to brass tacks (and new pathways) for rural prosperity

At the Science Forum 2016 (12–14 Apr), Stefan Dercon (left) spoke about when and where agricultural research can enhance rural poverty reduction; Mark Howden (right) spoke on what agricultural research can do to support climate change adaptations (photo credit: ILRI/Susan MacMillan).

Three weeks ago today, more than two hundred agricultural scientists distinguished in various disciplinary fields, some twenty-five ‘early-career’ agricultural scientists and an equal number of agricultural science communications professionals met in Ethiopia’s capital to rethink agricultural pathways, partnerships and priorities for poor rural people working themselves out of poverty, and, one hopes, into prosperity.

Most of the people attending this event had doctoral theses (many on agricultural subjects obscure to the rest of us) and thick resumés, some listing hundreds of papers published in the world’s most credible scientific journals. All were professionals, with most working in the public sector — some for research institutions, some for donor agencies, some for universities and some for non-governmental organizations — as well as a few working in the private sector, in for-profit companies. All were personally as well as professionally committed to ending absolute poverty (the poverty that kills) and to helping bring about prosperity in the rural areas of countries where hunger, disease and degraded lands still often attend poverty.

Participants at this Science Forum 2016, organized by the Independent Science and Partnership Council (ISPC) ofCGIAR, came from every corner of the world. All were leaders in their fields, adept at articulating themselves in English (the language of modern science, this century and last). So, was this a self-selected order of rather specialized agricultural development mandarins, then? Perhaps. The whole of my lunch hour on the first day was consumed by the passions of my lunch neighbour, who was soon to have a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, one of America’s two leading scientific journals, on the genetic history of ‘the dromedary’. (That, for the rest of us, is the one-humped camel of the Middle East and Africa.)

Listening to this news, I eventually managed to ask what new information my colleague’s study had discovered. Dromedaries, he explained, have been used for hundreds of years as transport animals carrying goods from Africa’s interior to the Mediterranean. Arriving at the coast in an exhausted state, these pack animals were typically replaced with fresh camels for the return journey. This helped explain, he said, why the ‘genetic signature of today’s dromedary population is exceptionally uniform’.

I waited to hear more but when nothing more appeared to be forthcoming, I ventured another question. I asked him how he thought his finding could be used to help advance our mission to reduce world poverty and hunger. My colleague paused thoughtfully to consider this before forming his response. Once made, he said, any genetic improvements of these animals — which, he reminded me, are likely to play an increasing role in the face of an increasingly hot and erratic climate — would be relatively easy and quick to spread throughout the region’s dromedary populations.

Conversational encounters such as this — charmingly obscure and tantalizing in turns — could be counted on to occur over every meal and coffee break throughout the three-day forum. Products of collisions between scientific reductionisms and global challenges, between rational research and wicked problems, between academic speak and vulgar realities, such conversations typify my corner of the research-for-development world, where — despite shared values and a tactful code of science diplomacy — the research and development agendas remain somewhat uncomfortable (if, on occasion, unusually productive) bedfellows.

While much of the discourse at this Science Forum 2016 inclined towards the academic (at times hardened with a missionary edge and at all times infected with ‘food security’ jargon), a buzz as well as buzzwords rose in the Economic Commission for Africa’s conference rooms where the forum’s facilitated discussions took place and where the collective intelligence of the participants could be felt.

Some talks stood out as exceptionally provocative. Two presentations that opened the first day’s plenary session, for example, were professionally as well as intellectually challenging. The first was a presentation by Stefan Dercon, a development economist at Oxford University and working for the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID). Another was made by Mark Howden, a climate change scientist at Australian National University serving on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Readers can judge for themselves just how thought-provoking the agricultural research-for-development community can be, with its heady mix of realities — at times displaying competing interests and heroic assumptions as well as formidable expertise and innovative ideas — by following the facilitated Q&A sessions that attended these plenary presentations.

In their uncompromising, tough-love scientific stump speeches, both Dercon and Howden argued for a kind of ‘intelligent design’, if you will, a back-to-basics path that blurs boundaries and dispenses with knee-jerk disciplinary biases and hit-and-run science projects to address the seemingly impossible agricultural deliverables promised by this group as well as, of course, the crushing complexities and power asymmetries facing the two billion people the group works to benefit.

While both speakers are obviously data-literate and data-driven, they both appeared to view research ‘business as usual’ as a ‘clear and present danger’. Dercon’s cheerful indignation at the lack of coherent syntheses for real-world policymaking, and Howden’s sympathetic understanding of farmer resistance to climate change rhetoric, were tonic. Dercon’s deconstruction of the evidence linking agricultural research and rural prosperity may have caused some concern within this elite conference group, but such discomfort is rather the norm in mission-oriented scientific circles, where the disputatious, and the original, have honoured places.

Both speakers focused on the importance of raising the capacity of agricultural research to enhance decision-making — by policymakers in the case of Dercon and by farming communities in the case of Howden. Interestingly, neither speaker focused on increasing agricultural research impacts per se, but rather on how agricultural research can support other communities (aid workers, food producers) in making the most appropriate decisions.

For both speakers, context is decisive. And that, in turn, implies that agricultural researchers are in for a ‘long game’ if they are to manage to find ways to catalyze real-world (i.e. context-specific) as well as rural-world prosperity.

Below you’ll find the (lightly edited) responses from Dercon, on poverty-agriculture questions, and Howden, on climate change. (Note: Responses to gender-related questions from this plenary session will be forthcoming from Ruth Meinzen-Dick who was unable to participate in the forum.)

Also posted online are blog reports on the presentations by Dercon and Howden (Rethinking pathways for rural prosperity: The agricultural challenge and The changing, real-world, climate change challenge for agricultural researchers), including links to their slide presentations, and video footage of their full presentations (Day 1, Plenary 1, Part 1 and Day 1, Plenary 1, Part 3).

Poverty challenges — Stefan Dercon

On the role of agricultural research in reducing rural poverty

Shall we tell African governments not to invest in agricultural research? I think that’s a good question, but I’m not sure on which planet you were this morning because I don’t think I implied that at all. I want simply to challenge you not to assume that they should be doing it. I suggest that we use our collective brains much more to think through what it is we want to achieve with agricultural research. How exactly will agricultural research contribute to development processes in the settings in which we are conducting our research? The same answer for each country, for each setting, for each region will probably be the wrong answer.

I think the Green Revolution showed us that these impacts work through quite subtly. In Africa there is huge heterogeneity in terms of who are the poor and how poverty interacts with other factors. Who you are reaching with your agricultural research, therefore, is also going to be quite heterogeneous.

Was the Green Revolution good to start with but later diluted by other factors? We can’t duck that question. We’re not living in a vacuum. We can’t say, ‘If the rest of the policy environment is going to be perfect, my policy is the right thing to do’. No. That’s not going to get you the return.

The Green Revolution tells us that agricultural interactions with the rest of a country’s economic strategies and policies and societies — the way land is unequally distributed, the way access to credit markets doesn’t work, and so on — these things matter. And we better think through them as well.

So should we invest in agricultural research? I think so. But simply saying that an input target is all we need to look at or how much we’re spending is all that matters? No. That’s not a good way of spending taxpayers’ money.

On the kinds of research we should do

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not simply saying we should do qualitative research. Let me say what I think we should be doing more of. We should do extremely good micro-research — as rigorously and carefully as we can. I’m a quantitative researcher and I’m not going to stop doing that. I’m going to keep on gathering micro-level evidence. But what we need to do more of is to piece these things together. When I work in policy and advise my ministers, my biggest frustration with research is that we don’t have good synthesis work.

We have plenty of communications materials that I throw away every time I get them. The glossier they get, the more I throw them away. We need things put together in scientifically careful ways. Systematic reviews are one thing. But given that context matters, they’re not going to help us that much because they remain dependent on where and in what context a particular study was done. How much I can generalize from such a review? We need to think through the primary effects of what we’re doing. How these will work through a local economy to the people we’re targeting. We need to pull good evidence pieces together. And when appropriate, we need honestly to say, ‘We don’t know’.

On the agriculture-poverty-everything else mashup

Take climate change. I’m already making life complicated for you by saying you have to think through how a change will likely work through given economies to actually affect rural poverty. The climate dimension makes this more complicated still. But the same logic applies. We think climate change is going in one direction but there’s lots of uncertainty, with lots of variability between and within the climate studies.

We can’t a priori say that there is one direction some intervention will work through. We don’t know what an economy will look like in five years’ or ten years’ time, just as we don’t know what the climate will be like in five or ten years. So we need to build up a portfolio of things to address different possible trajectories of development and economies. We need to ask ourselves if we have a good sense of how our research portfolio is serving development further. The impacts of our work will depend on circumstances, and we can’t predict those a priori.

On rural unemployment

Agricultural research should dare to think about how it fits into a country’s broad socioeconomic strategy. We’re not going to solve unemployment for all the kids. I can’t say that agricultural research is the obvious solution for ensuring no unemployment in a country. We need to keep thinking through the best possible thing to do in a given country and circumstance.

Where there is a lot of rural under-employment, it’s not obvious that we need to do much more labour-intensive agriculture. Maybe we need to do labour-intensive industry. While agriculture is quite labour-intensive, maybe there will be higher returns from promoting labour-intensive industry.

We should be willing to say that there will be contexts and circumstances where agricultural research is not the most obvious thing we should lobby for and put money in. There may be other things we could be doing that would be more important.

On small- vs large-scale agriculture

Whether we should focus on small- or large-scale farming systems will depend on how we think agriculture fits into an economy and where we think we will get the biggest impacts. I get into trouble with some of you when I say that I don’t believe agricultural development focused on the smallholder will always be the best thing for the poor in Africa. But that doesn’t mean that I think we should therefore be focused only on large-scale agriculture. I said it’s not necessarilythe case. I strongly think that large-scale commercial agriculture will have a role in the development trajectory of some African countries. It depends again on how it all fits together.

Read more from Stefan Dercon and his Oxford colleague Doug Gollin: Agriculture in African development: Theories and strategies, Annual Review of Resource Economics 2014. 6:471–92.

Climate challenges — Mark Howden

On lack of public uptake of climate change information

People tend to worry about change, and the implications of a given change, for themselves. And that often gets expressed in their political views.

Take, for example, Australia’s farmers, who are four times more likely to be climate change deniers than the population average. They’re twice as likely to say that humans are not having an impact on climate than the population average. And yet, when you look at their agricultural practices, the vast majority of them (75–90 per cent) are actually doing what you’d describe as ‘climate adaptation’ work.

The difference between the public statements that Australia’s farmers make and the private actions that they undertake are largely politically driven. Agriculture produces about a third of the greenhouse gas emissions in Australia, as it does globally when you look across the whole production system. Acknowledging that climate change is really important suggests that agriculture has a responsibility to reduce its emissions. But in many cases we don’t have good options to reduce emissions in cost-effective ways.

So acknowledging climate change would, politically speaking, put Australia’s farmers at a disadvantage, with pressure for the country’s agricultural sector to reduce those emissions. That will impact on farmer livelihoods. I understand this. Many of Australia’s farmers are arguing to themselves that it’s better to be a climate denier, and to keep this issue off the country’s agenda, than to accept it politically and publicly and have the disadvantages come to their doorstep later.

You have to understand the context in which climate change information is received, just like, regarding technology adoption, you have to understand the context in which a technology will be used or not. Who are the winners? Who are the losers? When do you make the change? How do you make the change? Who’s involved? How do you deal with changes across the value change, not just on the farm?

On climate change predictions vs decision-making

Regarding the specificity of our modeling and crop yields, I would tend to move away from predictions based on global climate and crop models. I’d rather focus on how people make decisions and how they can improve their decision-making processes. I’d focus on supporting innovation with risk-neutral or risk-positive strategies that encourage people to try different things. And I’d focus on having in place inductive learning process, with social learning actually built into our approaches rather than something that’s an ‘add-on’ or thought about later. Basically, I’d try to think about climate change adaptation much more from a cultural and social perspective than from a technological one.

Story by Susan Macmillan, ILRI

This article was first published on the Science Forum 2016 site of the CGIAR Independent Science and Partnership Council:

Like what you read? Give ILRI Communications a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.