Watering hole
Ollivier Girard/CIFOR

Systems research in CGIAR

The 2018 Science Forum (SF18), held in Stellenbosch last month, was a great success. There were excellent background papers and stimulating discussions both in plenary and in breakout groups. The over-riding take-home message from the forum was the urgent need for CGIAR to take a more holistic, systems approach to research for development, in order to address the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development.

Research and development in the field of livestock has tended to take an integrated approach, so perhaps lessons can be taken from there. With a third of all cropland producing livestock feed, three quarters of all antimicrobials produced used in livestock production, and a contribution of some 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gasses, it is impossible not to take a systems approach to livestock sector development. The multidisciplinary nature of international livestock research is reflected by strong links between the CGIAR Research Program (CRP) on Livestock Agri-Food Systems and two of the cross-cutting CRPs: Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH) and Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS).

Earlier this year, the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture, also recognized the important synergies and tradeoffs in the livestock sector across the different domains of food and nutrition security; livelihoods and growth; health and animal welfare; and climate and natural resource use. Sixty-nine ministers of agriculture signed up to a set of resolutions to tackle sustainability in the livestock sector, covering each of these four areas for concern. That said, there remain considerable knowledge gaps in understanding and quantifying the complex interactions that give rise to the synergies and trade-offs within and across these four areas. By addressing such issues, CGIAR research would be steered naturally towards a systems approach.

Recognizing the importance of systems research, in 2012 CGIAR established three ‘systems’ CRPs: Drylands, Humidtropics and Aquatic Agricultural Systems. By the second round of CRPs, in 2017, all three were deemed not to have achieved their objectives and were removed from the portfolio. Instead, the new commodity-based CRPs were referred to as ‘agri-food system CRPs’, the assumption being that a systems’ perspective would be integrated into commodity research and drive research across the entire portfolio of CRPs. Despite such good intentions, many discussions about ‘system approaches’ in CGIAR continue to suffer from a lack of basic terminological agreement.

Deciding upon what CGIAR actually means by agri-food system research would be an important step towards taking up the considerable challenge posed by SF18: to address the synergies and trade-offs inherent in research targeting the SDGs. If there are barriers that prevent systems approaches being taken in the agri-food systems CRP then these need to be identified and tackled, with new mechanisms found to incentivize and mainstream systems approaches across the CGIAR’s portfolio of research.

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