Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

To Transform the Global Food System and Feed the World Sustainably, Start at the Local Level

This post was written by Suresh Babu, and originally appeared on the Internation Food Policy Research Institute Blog. 

In a recent meeting with a developing country policy maker, I was asked which among a flurry of recently-published global reports on achieving food and nutrition security would be best for her county to adopt as a road map for reform. Who, she asked, will be translating the global paradigms outlined in these reports—focused on sustainably feeding a global population by 2050—into policies and programs specific to her country context?

The reports outline overarching strategies for food system transformation and address several related concerns: Reducing all forms of malnutrition, sustainable use of natural resources, achieving high productivity and profitability of farming systems, reducing the drudgery of farm work, equality for women, engaging rural youth in agribusinesses, and other objectives. Importantly, all these reports agree that food system transformation is the core issue at hand. They also agree that political will and a good policy environment are needed to achieve it. On the food production side, they collectively call for action at the farm and community levels; on the consumption side, for achieving nutritional well-being at the individual level.

But my colleague’s question still remains. To address it, two fundamental changes are essential for developing countries to put the recommendations of these global reports into practice: Interdisciplinary research, and policies and programs tailored to the country context and local level. These will require developing countries to foster a new set of institutional and human capacities.

The global reports say little about how to actually accomplish their ambitious goals. Their recommendations don’t extend to the policy design and implementation level, leaving that to others. So, who are these others? A major assumption in the last 50 years of development interventions is that there is someone out there who will take these global paradigms and run with them somehow, and that the ideas will eventually percolate down to national decision-making. Unsurprisingly, this assumption has repeatedly been proven wrong, largely because countries so often lack the human and institutional capacities necessary to translate global recommendations into action on the ground. Yet this assumption persists.

So how has this worked out? Not well. The basic idea seems to be that development partners and civil society organizations will, on their own, catch onto the recommendations of these global reports and incorporate them into their programming activities. This approach has failed for several reasons.

First, often one or two development partners move forward with some new paradigm for a while with much fervor—and the funding that goes with it—only to have the efforts fail to take off beyond the pilot project phase. Second, typically the pilots are designed through external technical assistance with limited participation or ownership by collaborators in the relevant country. On the ground, then, the new approaches embodied in the project design are rarely well-understood, nor are the theory of change or the impact pathways. Third, as there is always funding for new innovations and approaches, development partners often move on to some new project or paradigm before the troubled pilots can be studied for their lessons. Fourth, new sets of actors and players are always arriving on the development scene with little or no institutional memory of what went wrong or why. And finally, in the meantime the global development community has moved on to yet another new paradigm to address the same problem, with researchers and organizations following along to take advantage of the new funding opportunities that go with it.

We can, however, glean some useful information on implementation from the current crop of global reports. They urge us to put ourselves in a rural household in a farm or a community setting in a developing country and ask: How do we transform the food system to meet food security goals? What we have been doing over the past 40 years on this front, and what we have learned from these efforts? For policy makers and practitioners operating at the country level, two major recommendations emerge that are particularly relevant: Work in a multidisciplinary manner for solving problems and design interventions at the decentralized agroecological levels. They are addressed in turn below.

The development community has recognized for some time that when it comes to food system transformation, single disciplinary approaches are a necessary part of the picture, but are insufficient. Often, such research results do not pay off highly, as translating research into action is often left to people and institutions with poor capacity. One can take the Asian Green Revolution as an example of this “single discipline” problem. It accomplished its one goal—achieving food security by raising the productivity of major cereal crops—in several Asian countries, but success created its own set of problems. Rainfed and marginalized farmers were left behind, chemical and pesticide use soared, and biodiversity declined. Diets grew less diverse, and while calorie requirements were met, a legacy of micronutrient malnutrition remains. Meanwhile, as rural income increased, higher caloric intake resulted in increases in obesity and in non-communicable diseases such as diabetes.

We have been trying to fix these problems for the past 40 years while facing newly emerging issues such as globalization, market liberalization, new forms of malnutrition, the health implications of food systems, and recently climate change. The latest global reports call for moving away from monocropping of cereals through the development of integrated farming systems and mixed farming systems. They recommend going beyond the usual focus on farms to account for the benefits and costs in food value chains, to ask why markets are not functioning, how to incorporate nutritional goals in farming systems, how to reduce gender bias in consumption and nutrition, and to address natural resource degradation and excessive chemical use in agricultural production systems.

But translating ongoing single-discipline research in these areas into action has been slow. Often, at the farm or community level, proposed solutions could not be effectively combined with recommendations from scientists in other fields. Food system transformation will require finding ways to integrate these individual solutions in a holistic manner. That in turn requires skills that go beyond any particular discipline.

Recognizing this need, scientists have been urging interdisciplinary research and implementation for several decades now, but with little progress. Why? The current design of agricultural higher education systems and research institutions and practices does not lend itself to interdisciplinary approaches. Faculty members and scientists mostly pursue single disciplines, their performance evaluations are based on publishing in the high-quality single disciplinary journals in their fields, and most of their students graduate practicing a single disciplinary method. Meanwhile, as science progresses and tools and techniques grow more sophisticated, it is becoming even harder for scientists to move out of their own area of research—even within a single field.

Given these obstacles, what is the best approach to achieve the speedy transformation of food systems? The recent global reports stress that planning and programming should proceed from the bottom up, focusing first on localized agroecological levels. Agroecology is indeed a good place to start. Moving forward involves several basic steps. First, take stock of the problems in transforming the food system. Identify the technologies and tools that can do each particular job best. Identify the major constraints. Then ask these questions: Who will actually do it? What is the capacity of those on the ground? What role will the public and private sectors and farmers’ organizations have, and how can they complement each other at the local level in these efforts?

In the short run, this strategy requires developing plans for agroecological-based food system transformation while developing the capacity for interdisciplinary research and implementation. Then agroecology-based teams can work on the challengers and constraints facing specific zones. Finally, aggregate the work of these teams to develop policy and institutional perspectives that can enable action at larger scales.

In the medium run, work to overcome institutional and organizational constraints to more effectively use human resources. In the long run, develop interdisciplinary capacity. Start with encouraging more interdisciplinary collaboration in the biological and life sciences in higher education. Solving problems requires hands-on experience and skills to design and implement interventions in specific locations. A university education—particularly agricultural higher education—should encompass more than a single discipline. An example of a new approach would be to offer executive courses for extension workers in social entrepreneurship and problem-solving.

Policy makers like my colleague are frustrated. On the one hand they lack the resources and local capacity to implement existing national agricultural strategies; on the other, they are overwhelmed by multiple paradigms and constantly-shifting approaches, and catching up seems impossible. Yet they must take action—translating these global reports into concrete strategies, programs, and investments. Right now, then, the reports are addressed to policy makers who are either not adequately prepared to address the issues they raise, or so caught up in individual policy issues they cannot see the larger picture. A review of some of the national agricultural policy strategies currently available will show that these are not integrated, are mostly driven by external demands for change, and not fully backed by needed investments.

One day the world will be without poverty, hunger, and malnutrition, but the question is how long that takes—and how to speed up the process. Working effectively to transform food systems calls for innovations in policy in the institutional and technology spheres to trigger change at the farm and individual household levels. That’s the place to start. As these global reports work their way through the policy system, we should be working from the bottom up, country by country.

Suresh Babu is Head of Capacity Strengthening and a Senior Research Fellow at IFPRI.