Democratising food and agricultural research


IIED's work aims to help farmers ensure agricultural research better meets farmer's needs and priorities.

Farmer stands in her field of groundnuts boarded by maize in Malawi.

Agricultural research has great potential to address the challenges of food security, poverty and sustainable natural resource management. It can generate knowledge, technologies and policies for sustainable agricultural development, working across disciplines, sectors and stakeholder groups.

But the ways in which agricultural research is funded, organised, controlled and practised can have a huge impact on small-scale producers in the global south. In many countries, research is driven by external funding, priorities and technological ‘fixes’, such as hybrid seeds, which can erode crop diversity.

Yet it is increasingly clear that much publicly funded research does not meet the needs or priorities of farmers, particularly of those working on a small scale (less than one hectare of land) in low- and middle- income countries.

Despite their in-depth knowledge of food production, farmers and other producers are rarely asked to participate in the research process. They are rarely involved in setting research priorities during the development of strategic agricultural research plans. This is especially true of women farmers, even though they are often deeply knowledgeable about the cultivation, selection and the conservation of seeds — and have a deeper understanding of the culinary and nutritional quality of different crop varieties than men.

Across the world, food producers are beginning to raise their voices to ensure that agricultural research better meets their needs and priorities. To do this effectively, farmers and other citizens need inclusive and safe spaces to discuss how to build an agrifood research system that is democratic and accountable.

They must also be able to participate in setting the policy agenda for investments in agricultural research that affect them.

Establishing inclusive governance of food systems — where farmers and other citizens play an active role in designing and implementing food and agricultural policies — is not just a matter of equity or social justice. Evidence shows that it can also lead to more sustainable livelihoods and environments.

IIED’s role

IIED thinks that research to address agricultural and food-related challenges benefit from the different perspectives, experiences and knowledge of smallholder farmers, pastoralists and scientists. As a result we are keen to support knowledge sharing and to broker relationships between them.

IIED has supported a series of farmer assessments and citizens’ juries in different parts of the world, which have helped farmers to achieve their own vision of agricultural research. For example, in 2012, a high-level policy dialogue between farmers and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa developed a shared agenda designed to serve development and the public good.

Similarly, a project in the Andes is fostering dialogue between Andean farmers and agricultural researchers, and aims to increase the influence that farmers have on agricultural research.

We also engage directly with the Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR), centres of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and other agricultural research institutions to develop mechanisms for the effective participation of civil society organisations and agricultural producers.

This area of work was previously led by Dr Michel Pimbert, who is now director of the Centre for Agroecology and Food Security (CAFS) at Coventry University. For more information on these projects you can contact him at or visit the website on democratising agricultural research.