Rethinking agriculture research to meet people's needs

People in Africa, Latin America and South and West Asia will have their say about the future of food and farming under a major project that aims to make agricultural research better at serving people's needs.

News, 14 April 2008

The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) initiative comes as a landmark intergovernmental report finds that agriculture must be more ecological and locally relevant to protect soils, biodiversity and livelihoods worldwide.

IIED's work will complement and build on the final report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), to be launched simultaneously in several capitals including London, Paris, Washington, on 15 April.

The IAASTD gathered the views of hundreds of scientists, policymakers, and others over three years. It did little to engage directly with farmers and consumers to find out and incorporate their views in the final reports, however.

IIED's project will enable food providers, food workers and consumers to have their say about the kind of food and agricultural research they want in four regions, with individual countries acting as hosts.

Over three years, it will gather the views of small-scale farmers, indigenous people, nomadic pastoralists, rural communities, food workers and other citizens in West Africa (Mali), South Asia (India), the West Asia (Iran) and the Andean region of Latin America (Bolivia and Peru).

"While the IAASTD was truly remarkable for its breadth and detailed analysis, it mainly involved scholars, representatives of large nongovernmental organisations and other professionals who spoke and wrote on behalf of farmers, indigenous people, pastoralists and forest dwellers," says Dr Michel Pimbert, director of IIED's sustainable agriculture, biodiversity and livelihoods programme.

"The knowledge and directly expressed needs of rural communities — and of poor, marginalised food providers and food workers in particular — are largely absent from the IAASTD report," he adds.

"The new project will overcome this deficit and enable citizens to exercise their imagination to decide how to design a food and agriculture research and policies that are accountable to wider society. There is a need for a complementary space to directly involve food providers and consumers in defining upstream strategic research agendas for food and agriculture," says Pimbert.

"Publicly funded research shapes the choices available to farmers, food workers and consumers worldwide, and affects the environments in which they live and work," says Pimbert. "There is an increasing need to democratise the governance of science and technology, ensuring that it serves the public good rather than narrow economic interests."

"The IAASTD report indicates that a door has opened. Food providers and consumers now have an opportunity to push the door further open, and add their voice directly to the change of direction and recognition that things cannot go on as before."

The project will enable farmers and other citizens to participate in the design of new approaches to agricultural research.

In Bolivia and Mali, indigenous peoples, farmers and others will focus on how to transform research to achieve these nations' new national policy of 'food sovereignty', which seeks to ensure that people are in control of what food is produced and how.

"Instead of being seen as passive beneficiaries of trickle-down development or technology transfer, citizens should be viewed as knowledgeable and active actors who are centrally involved in both the choice of policies and technologies, and their implementation, spread and regulation," says Pimbert.

"Technological fixes and policies decided from above are not enough. Science and knowledge should be part of a bottom-up, participatory process in which citizens themselves take centre stage," he adds.