The Sustainable Seeds Project: Research Funding for Sustainable Agriculture – A Non-Sustainable State of Affairs (Part II)

Research Funding for Sustainable Agriculture: A Non-Sustainable State of Affairs (Part II)

Julia Köninger[1]

Consequences of the Sub-Optimal Research Funding Going into Sustainable Agricultural Systems

 The gap in research fund creates a gap in scientific knowledge.[1] Studies have shown, that a major knowledge gap exists especially vis-à-vis the quantification of costs of agricultural production systems, from their environmental, social and health perspective.[2] Further research is needed in the area of eco-functional intensification of agriculture,[3] and also, research on ecosystem services such as plant systems that benefit or harm each other (allelopathic plants).[4]

With the inevitable climate challenges we face, it is surprising that there is a dearth of research on scaled-down future projections of climate change and the impacts on agriculture. Such research is necessary to optimize adoption strategies.[5] This knowledge gap leads to a gap in educational curriculums, starting a vicious cycle that prevent future scholars and researcher from studying more integrated, holistic ways of farming (See also Prong 2).

Due to this missing research and research funding along with widely varying perceptions of agroecology, a widely accepted definition of agroecology has not yet been developed, and discordant viewpoints prevent the further application and usage of the approach, for example, at a governmental level.[6] Politics, institutional activities and innovation mostly focus on research priorities. Accordingly, agroecology is currently barely integrated in political activities e.g. in subsidy schemes.[7] In addition to a knowledge gap, a gap of research funding results in sub-optimal crop and livestock breeding in organic (traditional) farming.[8] As a result, organic farmers are forced to use conventional seed varieties with wide-reaching impacts on yields and plant health because these seeds are not genetically diverse and often not suited for cultivation without chemical inputs.[9]

Less Inputs, Less Research?

The imbalanced research funds reveal a correlation between inputs and the amount of conducted research creating a focus on short-term input efficiencies in the current system. Consequently it is mostly conventional, output oriented research that is funded, which creates a technical regime.[10] Moreover, this regime locks out agroecological and traditional farming methods, especially since they have been shown to reduce input dependency and therefore related research is unlikely to be supported by the private sector.[11] The current investments for big data emphasizes that technical regime, since studies around big data mostly focus on yields and conventional farming.[12] While the technology could possibly benefit all farming systems, there is currently not much multi-stakeholder and multi-disciplinary research happening (e.g. research engaging not just scientists, but also social scientists, governments, extension services, farmers etc.). This must be seen very critically,[13] and immediate steps need to be taken globally to correct these inequities in research funding, not only for the sake of small farmers, but also for the sake of soil and environmental health and sustainability.

There is an urgent need for research in agroecology that is independent of external inputs.[14] To bring research in agriculture towards a more sustainable state of affairs, it must shift to a focus on long-term thinking instead of immediate yield optimization that results in unmanageable negative externalities (soil depletion, decreasing soil microorganisms, depleting water resources, pollution of water resources).[15] Long-term commitment of funds are needed to support this kind of research.[16] For example, the German Agricultural Research Alliance (DAFA) recommends questioning the usually funded project duration of 3-years. According to the DAFA, longer research funds should be supported by the Federal Government. A longer time frame and research extent is needed in order to conduct complex agroecological research that involves many different ecosystem interactions.[17] Especially in Asian countries there is a lack of such long-term funded research programs.[18]

In addition to a different time frame, there is also need for new research funding mechanisms and approaches in order to find groundbreaking new ideas, and also to revive and bring to the mainstream thus far ignored traditional farming methods that are declared by international instruments such as the CBD, as centrally relevant for the protection of biodiversity. Moreover, these ideas and solutions are only realizable if research grant systems also target outside-the-box ideas and studies outside a classical linear approach to research-supported innovations.[19]

Future research requires inter- and transdisciplinary cooperation and a research practice network that enables co-learning between different parties involved (stakeholders and multi-disciplinary research teams).[20] To reach the needed comprehensive research findings, farmers need to be actively involved and be considered as co-researchers and co-facilitators of knowledge.[21] It is mandatory to adapt research funds in order to meet these goals, and also current structures at universities and funding schemes must be questioned and verified to determine whether they are still the right tools to reach sustainability goals and future needs.[22]

[1] Ratnadass et al., (2012).

[2] Niggli, Willer, and Baker, (2016).

[3] Tittonell, (2014).

[4] Niggli, (2015).

[5] Zulu, 2017; Lipper et al., (2014).

[6] Sanderson Bellamy and Ioris, (2017).

[7] Wezel et al., (2018).

[8] De Ponti, Rijk, and Van Ittersum, (2012); Ponisio et al., (2015).

[9] van Bueren et al., (2011); Döring et al., (2012).

[10] Vanloqueren and Baret, (2009).

[11] DeLonge, Miles, and Carlisle, (2016).

[12] Wolfert et al., (2017); Bronson and Knezevic, (2016).

[13] Bronson and Knezevic, (2016).

[14] Hatt et al., (2016).

[15] Zulu, “Existing Research and Knowledge on Impacts of Climate Variability and Change on Agriculture and Communities in Malawi.”

[16] Tittonell, (2014).

[17] Vanloqueren and Baret, (2009).

[18] Niggli, Willer, and Baker, (2016).

[19] Hamm et al., (2017).

[20] Niggli, Willer, and Baker, (2016).

[21] Niggli, (2015).

[22] Dulloo, Hunter, and Borelli, (2010); Watson, Walker, and Stockdale, (2008).

Please click here to view Part I of this two part post.

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