One small change of words – a giant leap in effectiveness!

One small change of words is a giant leap in the effectiveness of agricultural research and development.

The race is on to find sustainable ways of producing enough food to feed the world over the next three to four decades. Over this time, population, and living standards for many people, are both set to rise, creating a burgeoning demand for food, at the same time as pressures on land and ecosystems threaten supply. A new article, just out in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, tackles the thorny question of how to ‘scale up’ the use of sustainable intensification options so that they are available to large numbers of smallholder farmers.

There have been a number of high profile calls to scale-up agroforestry as a means to produce more food and fuel in an environmentally sustainable way. Jerry Glover of USAID set out the stall for perennial agriculture in Africa, in a piece in Nature last year: Agriculture: Plant perennials to save Africa’s soils. Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, recently made the case that agroecology can feed the world, and even Bill Gates, quoted on the sleeve of Gordon Conway’s 2012 book One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed the World? says “we will need to help smallholder farmers sustainably increase their productivity.” Sustainable, ecological or agroecological ‘intensification’, are the new buzzwords in the corridors of aid agencies and government ministries, and Brian Keating has rekindled interest in agricultural systems thinking under a banner of ‘eco-efficiency’.

Jeldu landscape, Ethiopia

Jeldu landscape, Ethiopia

All this has prompted leading researchers at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) to step up to the plate and look at what we have learned about scaling up agroforestry over the last few decades and to propose what we need to do now, to be more effective in getting large numbers of people to adopt agroforestry practices over large areas of land.

Their key conclusion is that we need to embed research within development to accelerate locally adapted innovation.

ICRAF’s Ric Coe, recently described as ‘the David Attenborough of research methods,’ says “it is time for more evidence to underpin development decisions. Vast sums of money are spent on development action even when we don’t know very much about the effectiveness of alternatives. We can improve on this, if we can persuade development partners to use planned comparisons in the structure of their action and then monitor performance so that we can see what works in different contexts. This way, the effectiveness of development improves year on year, as we learn and get a better understanding of what to try in different circumstances.”

“The problem is”, says Fergus Sinclair, leader of agroforestry systems research at ICRAF, “that, quite understandably, in development projects, people try and use what they think is the best bet agroforestry practice in each context that they are working. As a result, they have not tried very many different options out across very many different contexts, so the reality is that we don’t know much about what different options suit different contexts. And this is one of the key features of using trees to support agriculture – there are lots of options – many different tree species that can be combined with different crops, on a variety of soils, for different sized farms and farm families with different assets, working under different cultural and policy constraints. The possible options represent a diversity of opportunity to meet the diversity of needs and contexts. So, we need to try different options out across a range of conditions. This will accelerate learning about what works where and for whom. If we don’t do this, then we will know as little about what to advise any particular farmer in five years from now as we do today.”

Edmundo Barrios, land and soil management scientist at ICRAF, stresses that “options are not just technologies and farmers face different challenges and opportunities. While matching options to farmer contexts we also have to consider delivery mechanisms, like extension systems and markets and the policy and institutional settings within which they operate. The co-learning paradigm that we propose to enable this demands new partnerships amongst research, extension, higher education, policy, development and private sector actors.”

William Shakespeare famously noted that a rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet. We undoubtedly suffer from a plethora of jargon in both research and development circles that proliferates terms without necessarily discreet meanings.

So, what are researchers at ICRAF doing by morphing ‘R4D’ into ‘RinD’?

A seemingly small change, which turns out to have profound consequences for going about both research and development. They argue that appropriate research can not be done with the resources typically available for it. To try out options across the wide range of conditions that farmers face, research has to be done at the scale at which development is envisaged. They want to move away from scaling out from intensively worked pilot sites, to considering fine scale variation in drivers of adoption across large scaling domains from the outset. Conversely, development action desperately needs rigorous research methods to accelerate impact. It is only by systematic trial of different options across different contexts that we can learn what is effective and what is not, and so spend development dollars wisely. For an inspirational Ted talk on evaluating options see Esther Duflo – Social experiments to fight poverty.

These ideas on scaling are enshrined in the theory of change for the CGIAR research programmes on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (Theme 1: Smallholder Production Systems and Markets) and Dryland Systems and are relevant to that on Humidtropics.

The article is available under open access: Coe, R., Sinclair, F. and Barrios, E. Scaling up agroforestry requires research ‘in’ rather than ‘for’ development. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 6: 73–77.

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