July 20, 2011

Global science policy for innovation and adaptation in agriculture

All summer I've been working on a paper, long overdue, for my Innovation Studies class. My main focus is how technological innovation in agriculture promotes or constrains adaptive capacity to climate change. Here is a review and my response to some recent global reports. (If you're wondering why I choose Google's Mendel-themed logo today, scroll to the bottom!)

Due to the importance of agriculture to international development efforts, international consortiums such as the World Bank have examined the prospects for future agricultural research and innovation, increasingly in the context of climate change adaptation. Especially in Africa, agriculture-based technology transfer has been a main focus of organizations like the United Nations Development Programme’s Climate Change Adaptation Team (Tessa & Kurukulasuriya, 2010). The "technology transfer" model has been upheld since the Green Revolution, but agricultural development paradigms are beginning to shift towards an "innovation systems" approach (McIntyre et al., 2009).

The international development literature also examines the synergies between agricultural innovation and adaptive capacity. A World Bank report on agricultural innovation addresses adaptive capacity, though not specifically with regards to climate change, stating that:
Using technical assistance... does not build capacity to innovate unless it is linked to specific efforts to learn from these experiences and develop networks that can both anticipate changes and bring in the expertise to deal with them as needed. In other words, firefighting approaches result in ad hoc responses but not in a sustainable capacity to respond…. Sectors or organizations require an adaptive capacity, whereby they are plugged into sources of information about the changing environment. The other facet of adaptive capacity is that it requires links to the sources of knowledge and expertise needed to tackle a varied and unpredictable set of innovation tasks. (World Bank, 2006, p. 70)
Based on a 2009 World Bank report on the same topic, innovative capacity and adaptive capacity are used somewhat interchangeably (again, not necessarily in the context of climate change, but rather broader economic, social, and environmental change) (Rajalahti, Janssen, & Pehu, 2009). However, as opposed to the emerging innovation systems approach of major development organizations, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), part of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and also under the World Bank umbrella, tends to take a more reductionist approach to science and technology innovation. They often make broad claims such as, “Even without climate change, greater investments in agricultural science and technology are needed to meet the demands of a world population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050… Agricultural science- and technology-based solutions are essential to meet those demands,” based on global models and metrics of yield and calories (Nelson et al., 2010, p. viii).

The CGIAR recently launched a “Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security” (CCAFS) program area that brings together global experts on climate change and agriculture. The CCFAS, like many mainstream international development agencies, takes a vulnerability approach to climate change and rural livelihoods. Despite some focus on reconciling the supply and demand of science (for example, through boundary work), linear models such as “Feeding climate information into climate-limited livelihood systems holds a great deal of promise” often prevail (CGIAR, 2009, p. 19). In the case of the CGIAR, there are constraints on both the supply and demand side of innovation in international agricultural research systems. The CGIAR has a history of investing in plant genetic research, so there is a bias towards plant breeding and biotechnology that can result in narrow research objectives (Dalrymple, 2006). On the demand side, adoption of technological innovations is constrained by farmers’ perspectives, which are often highly local and limited by time-scale (Dalrymple, 2006). Lybbert and Sumner (2010) explicitly address the opportunities and constraints for technological innovation and adoption of climate-relevant technologies (for both mitigation and adaptation) in developing countries. They point out government interventions that can have a significant impact on technological developments and farmers’ adaptive capacity, such as intellectual property rights and research and development priorities.

A report titled “The top 100 questions of importance to the future of global agriculture” identifies climate change impacts as one of the most pressing concerns of global agriculture (Pretty et al., 2010). The authors frame climate change adaptation in the context of tradeoffs in the ‘food, energy and environment trilemma’ (Tilman et al., 2009), and ask questions such as, “How can the resilience of agricultural systems be improved to both gradual climate change and increased climatic variability and extremes?” (Pretty et al., 2010, p. 225). Questions 59-72 deal explicitly with increasing farmers’ innovativeness and adaptive capacity through models of agricultural extension, participatory research, gender-equity at all levels of research and extension efforts, and improving overall rural livelihoods (Pretty et al., 2010).

The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development Global Report is another recent and comprehensive article on the state of global agriculture and science and technology policy. On the topic of climate change, it states that, “Agricultural households and enterprises need to adapt to climate change but they do not yet have the experience in and knowledge of handling these processes, including increased pressure due to biofuel production” (McIntyre et al., 2009, p. 3). The authors propose to increase the reach of extension education and access to natural and financial capital as ways to promote farmer adoption of technologies, as well as exploiting synergies between knowledge and technological innovation. In terms of climate change adaptation, the authors lay out two pathways: high technology (crop, soil, and climate modeling, plant genetic improvement) and low technology (irrigation, farm management practices). It is worth noting that the high technology approach of biotechnology and climate models are “supply heavy” and rely significantly on future technological breakthroughs, whereas the low technology approaches are “win-win” adaptations for smallholder farmers that both improve yields and increase adaptive capacity. 

However, one of the climate take-home messages of agricultural innovation scholars is that future technological innovation and global market trends are likely to be more important than the negative impacts of climate change. The predicted gradual climatic shifts will allow institutional innovation to occur in agricultural research, especially in light of the United States’ history of making cheap food a priority through market structures (such as subsidies and disaster insurance) and investment in technology. Bill Easterling (1996) predicts that farmers may face some climate related losses, an increase in global demand (thus the need for higher yields or more cropland), and overall increased constraints on farm finances. Technological innovations such as land management techniques, crop genetic diversity, and rapid response to inputs such as energy prices will be more important.

In my paper I examined how different agricultural technologies- from plant breeding and varieties, to irrigation, to climate forecasts- can present opportunities and constraints for adaptation. Something that's been on my mind lately is the utilization of plant genetic resources (hence the Gregor Mendel logo!) for climate adaptation in agriculture. More on that soon!

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