Africa: COP26 - Funding Innovation Crucial for Strengthening Climate-Stressed Food Systems

Benedict Manyi nurses his kale crops, using harvested water pulled from his farm pond with a solar pump, in Makueni County, Kenya, August 3, 2021.
25 October 2021
opinion

Washington DC — The global food system is facing more demands from society than ever before in modern times - and rightly so.

From responding to the climate crisis to dealing with rising malnutrition and ensuring the sustainable use of natural resources and protection of biodiversity, the responsibility of our food systems is no longer just to "feed the world."

The recent action agenda released by the UN Secretary General at the Food Systems Summit not only highlighted this urgency but reminded us that our food systems are also one of our greatest hopes for making progress on these fronts.

While the US$10 billion pledged by the United States to end hunger and malnutrition is a welcome start, our food systems have been forced to cope with an increasingly complex, interconnected set of challenges for too long - often without a corresponding shift in focus from governments and other key players.

The changes required also need sufficient funding for food systems transformation, estimated to be in the range of $400 billion per year. This goal is within reach and is roughly comparable to three times New York City's annual budget or less than 0.5 percent of world GDP in 2020.

Food systems transformation also requires impactful innovations, so particular importance in this funding should therefore be placed on investment in research and innovation.

Increased and sustained funding for research and innovation is crucial, as the world requires technological, policy and institutional innovation to address the increasingly complex set of challenges that are facing, and threatening, food, land and water systems in a climate crisis.

Investments in agricultural research and innovation generate significant returns. Benefit-cost ratios of CGIAR research, for example, have shown consistent returns on investments to the order of 10:1.

Despite this, international agricultural research remains underfunded, threatening food, economic, and environmental security around the world, whilst hunger and poverty continue to rise.

In addition to securing funding for research and innovation, research itself must evolve to address the growing challenges around the world. In particular, research efforts should favour more circular business models that are driven by value, rather than volume, and those that promote resilience to shocks and balance with nature over more environmentally damaging models.

We must also ensure that more research translates into concrete innovations that truly advance food systems transformation. While we desperately need technological innovations to increase productivity, reduce poverty, hunger and malnutrition, as well as climate proofing our food systems and making them more equitable, such innovations can only be taken forward if they are bundled with appropriate national policies, institutional changes and global actions, and strategies to deal with shocks and conflict.

Sometimes the implementation of innovations inevitably involves trade-offs, not only synergies. Research and innovation efforts will be crucial to understanding and managing such trade-offs, as well as to help ensure that interconnected challenges are tackled in the most efficient and holistic way.

To both achieve and maximize the potential of research and innovation, governments of the world should consider allocating just one per cent of the portion of their national GDP that relates to food systems, towards research and innovation.

At present, many countries, including many of the world's richest, only spend half of this. For the least developed countries, aid will be needed to reach such a level, potentially through a special trust fund backed by the International Monetary Fund's Special Drawing Rights (SDRs).

Such a fund, when properly backed by developed countries, would help to support greater scientific capacity on the ground in low- and middle-income countries, which will be needed if we are to address the challenges facing the whole world, not just the developed world.

Today's agri-food systems no longer simply feed people. They must also provide nutrition, promote livelihoods, protect the environment, and tackle climate change - often all at once. Financing and unlocking innovations are needed to address these challenges together.

If our food, land and water systems are ever able to achieve society's mounting demands, we must ensure our priorities are in order and begin to properly finance them.

Ultimately, all of the ambition generated around the UN Food Systems Summit will fall short if we fail to finance the new research and innovation we know we need.

Claudia Sadoff is Executive Management Team Convener, and Managing Director, Research Delivery and Impact, CGIAR; Joachim von Braun is Chair of the Scientific Group, UN Food Systems Summit

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