"After COVID-19, greater funding for agroecological innovation could play a vital role"

On 10 June Biovision Biovision, IPES-Food and the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) published a new report on investments in agroecology: ‘Money Flows: what is holding back investment in agroecological research for Africa?’ looks at how much is invested in research for development by a clutch of key actors, and how they are doing it. To get a sense of the study, we spoke to Melissa Leach, director of IDS and a member of IPES-Food’s expert panel.

The ‘Money Flows’ report will be released on 10 June. Why the focus on funding for agroecology at this time?

This is a key moment to be releasing a report of this kind. We have been aware for years of the problems with agri-food systems globally and in Africa, and their failure to promote equity and sustainability amidst global challenges such as climate change. We have also been aware of the potential of agroecology to contribute to more resilient food systems. But there has been consistent under-investment in agroecological research and practice. And now, the COVID-19 pandemic has shone an even brighter spotlight on the cracks in our current agri-food systems and the urgent need for alternatives. We need to ‘build back better’ following this crisis, and greater attention to and funding for agroecological innovation could play a vital role.

We need some context. Who has been investing in agricultural development in the Global South and what has this meant for farmers and communities there?

Investment in agricultural development in the Global South – and especially agri-food research, science and technology – has a long history, going back to colonial times and extending through the ‘green revolution’ era of the 1960s and 70s, to the present. Debates and investments have reflected contested power dynamics between, at the extreme, “techno-productionist” perspectives, focused on maximising efficiency and profit through high-tech investment in seeds, fertilisers and machinery, and those focusing on supporting diverse agro-ecologies and livelihoods. These build on farmers’ own knowledge, innovations and capacities in highly varied landscapes and socio-economies.
Trends in the last few decades have tended to favour these narrower, techno-industrial approaches: they include a reduction in national agricultural research funding and capacities, a relative rise in private, corporate investment and Public-Private Partnerships, often linked to the interests of large biotechnology firms. We can also see the growing role of emerging powers such as China, India and Brazil, largely replicating technology-transfer and productionist logics. The agricultural development landscape is increasingly complex, but overall these tendencies have marginalised agroecology-oriented research and development. And this has costs to communities and ecologies: greater inequality, poverty, loss of essential biodiversity and natural resources, and reduced resilience in the face of challenges such as climate change.

What about now? What does this report tell us about financial flows in food systems?

The report highlights the overall stagnation in the amount of development aid channelled into agricultural research, education and extension over the last decade – representing  only 14% of agricultural aid in sub-Saharan Africa in 2017. Let’s not forget that these funding flows to agricultural R&D consistently favour industrial agriculture and high-tech, input-intensive approaches, while those supporting agroecological principles and practices remain marginalised. These overall patterns are repeated in the report’s three case studies. The first is a major philanthropic investor: the Gates Foundation. The second is a major national recipient and implementor of agricultural R&D: Kenya. And these patterns are to a more limited extent visible among bilateral donors… the report’s third case study, Switzerland, illustrates relatively greater support for agroecology. Overall we see just a handful of donors — including France, Switzerland, Germany, the FAO, and IFAD — which have explicitly recognised agroecology as a key solution for building sustainable food systems.

From your perspective, what are the main obstacles to agroecological research in sub-Saharan Africa?

Financial flows are an important part of the broader politics and political economies of current agri-food systems, and agricultural R&D. Certainly, more substantial and consistent funding flows to agroecological research are needed. But this needs to happen with an “opening-up” of the politics of knowledge and research – to contest the “techno-productionist” paradigm and instead highlight the value of alternatives. How? Through intervention in international and national policy debates, and greater recognition, legitimacy and support to the actors and institutions advocating for agroecology. These include civil society, farmers and food sovereignty movements. So there really is a need to expose and challenge the interlocked power relations and interests that support dominant agri-food policy processes. But there is no escaping the fact that this is a highly political process.

The report makes several recommendations for the transition to sustainable food systems. Why would it help to set targets for the share of AgR4D going to Africa-based organisations?

The transformation to sustainable food systems will require shifts in politics, power and the financial flows that are intertwined with these. One of these key power shifts is to rebuild local and national ownership by African countries of their own agri-food policies and strategies, and to empower local organisations, including civil society, in advocating for change. Increasing the share of agricultural R&D going to Africa-based organisations is an important step in this direction. In short, targets can be helpful in holding donors and international organisations to account.