by Marco Ferroni – Chair, CGIAR System Board

From the worst drought in four decades threatening famine across the Horn of Africa to extreme heat in South Asia, the war in Ukraine and the unequal pace of pandemic recovery, global food systems are under extraordinary pressure.

The combined result is expected to leave more than 320 million people severely food insecure this year, compared to 135 million two years ago.

Until recently, efforts to bolster such an overstretched global food system have focused on a single aspect, such as developing hardier crop varieties, reforming subsidies or reducing food waste, but any system is only as strong as its weakest link.

New varieties, technologies or incentives to increase yields are meaningless if there is no water to irrigate the soil, or if the infrastructure is not there to get the harvest to market.

Policymakers and scientists are increasingly recognising the need for a new approach that considers all aspects from farm to fork, a philosophy that goes beyond individual commodities, and even beyond agriculture as a sector.

A “systems approach” allows for a greater understanding of the bigger picture by considering the broader context in which food is produced, distributed, and consumed, and how those systems function within related systems such as health and energy.

Just as the G7 agriculture ministers warned against short-term responses to the food crisis that come at the cost of medium and long-term sustainability, CGIAR believes a systems approach is necessary to minimise the trade-offs and unintended consequences that have contributed to food crises for decades.

Put simply, systems thinking is a holistic approach that accounts for the interplay of all elements, assessing and addressing both the potential benefits and harms of new developments.

For example, when applied to food, it raises questions such as: does this new seed or practice require additional natural resources and are they available? Is a particular innovation accessible and practical for women as well as men? What repercussions will it have for the environment, trade, food prices, livelihoods and nutrition?

Adopting such a framing can then inspire a so-called “innovation systems approach”, which fosters productive engagement between key actors, including farmers, governments, enterprises, universities, and research institutes, and directs more targeted investment towards effective innovations in line with the G7’s recommendations.

The major advantage of such a systems approach is that it can be applied at all levels.

At a global level, rebalancing food systems requires a complete understanding of our natural resources worldwide, and how they intersect with food production across different regions in different scenarios.

Research shows that agriculture, which produces fuel crops as well as food, is one of the major contributors of greenhouse gas emissions, meaning agricultural innovations must be considered alongside energy innovations to ensure one avoids jeopardising the other.

Understanding how innovations and decisions made in one country can have ripple effects thousands of miles away is made easier through models such as the International Model for Policy Analysis of Agricultural Commodities and Trade (IMPACT), while connecting food systems with land and water systems through cross-disciplinary research can help manage agriculture’s contribution to climate change.

At a national level, addressing country-level priorities by understanding the different levers at play can unlock multiple benefits.

For example, when Bangladesh identified a gender gap in agriculture in 2012, the government worked with CGIAR scientists to develop the Agriculture, Nutrition, and Gender Linkages (ANGeL) program to achieve its dual goals of greater women’s empowerment and improved nutrition.

The program featured agricultural training as well as nutrition behaviour change communication and gender sensitization trainings to increase women’s empowerment, diversify production and improve the quality of household diets.

Finally, a systems approach tackles localised needs more effectively by addressing the multiple factors that contribute to and compound poverty and hunger.

For example, bean breeders at the Pan-Africa Bean Research Alliance (PABRA) developed a demand-led research model that has resulted in more than 500 new varieties of beans according to the different needs, tastes and preferences of both farmers and consumers.

By refining agricultural research with an end-to-end approach, scientists developed the new varieties most likely to be successful with consumers and therefore adopted by farmers, doubling bean productivity in Uganda and Ethiopia between 2008 and 2018.

Ultimately, people do not only eat food: they grow it, sell it, buy it, cook it and share it. And so, food systems transformation requires dealing with such complexity by harnessing science and technology, learning from analysis and data, interpreting ambiguity and potential conflicts to develop multiple solutions to tackle interconnected challenges.

These benefits could be fully realised with greater investment into research across the agri-food system as a whole, which in turn starts with a shift in mindset towards more systemic thinking.

This opinion piece was first published in the IPS News website