The importance of context in scaling innovations for low-emission food systems

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By Ma. Eliza J. Villarino

Why do some food systems stakeholders adopt technology, and why do some don’t?

Researchers from the Alliance of Bioversity-CIAT evaluated two groups of rice farmers: one group included those that received and adopted advice from Fedearroz to improve farm management, through climate forecasts or workshops, while the other group neither received nor adopted such advice. What was interesting about the former group of farmers was that by following the advice, not only did they see an increase in yield but also a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions due to using a lower amount of inputs, such as fertilizer, needed to produce the same kilogram as those who didn’t adopt the advice.

The Alliance is now exploring the reasons why the rice farmers adopted or not adopted the recommendation by Fedearroz.

“Understanding the why’ could illuminate the context that influences the decision of farmers to adopt innovations,” said Robert Andrade, a researcher for the Foresight and Applied Economics for Impact at the Alliance of Bioversity-CIAT and who led the above-noted study.

There are different types of context. There’s the technological context, which refers to the context in which the technology or innovation is to be implemented. There’s the biophysical context, which refers to the biophysical environment necessary for farmers and other stakeholders to secure food and improve livelihoods while also protecting the environment. And then there’s the institutional and political context, which represents the institutional and political factors associated with the decision to scale technology.

“Splitting the different types of context is essential to do when it comes to scaling agricultural innovations. They are not equally important because some of them would have more weight when it comes to scaling innovations,” said George Amahnui, a researcher at the Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT who has been working with his Mitigate+ work package 4 colleagues to develop a framework for identifying and selecting scalable CGIAR innovation with the highest potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the food systems.

When it comes to scaling innovations around food systems, determining the context will require defining the boundaries of those systems, said Tek Bahadur Sapkota, an agricultural scientist and system/climate change specialist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center or CIMMYT.

Sapkota noted that delineating the food system boundaries could lead to identifying the right stakeholders from the supply and demand sides of innovations. The supply-side stakeholders include all the parties involved in producing food, while those on the demand side include those involved in food processing, transportation, storage and the management of food loss and waste.

“These [stakeholders] are all going to play a major role in the food system and collectively define the context that we’re working on,” said Sapkota.

The objectives pursued with the scaling of innovations would also help define the context and prioritize what in the various components of the context would matter the most, according to Marie-Charlotte Buisson, who leads the economic and impact assessment research group at the International Water Management Institute. She noted that having clear objectives “should help you to narrow down what fits or not fits into the context for a particular innovation.”

Buisson gave the example of how solar irrigation responds to different objectives depending on the context and underlined the need to acknowledge those specificities before designing innovation scaling programs. While in South Asia, solar pumps replace fossil fuel pumps and support the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, in Africa, solar pumps mostly support the development of irrigation that can help farmers adapt to climate change.

Recognition within the research and development community of the importance of context in scaling innovations is growing. Still, it’s underrated, according to CIMMYT Scaling Advisor Lennart Woltering.

“[Context] is much more important than we think, and you can even say [that when it comes to scaling] 10 percent is innovation and 90 percent is the context,” Woltering noted. “Getting an innovation to scale is really dependent on the enabling environment, and sustaining it at scale depends on whether that enabling environment can be maintained after projects.”

Not paying much more attention to the context comes with the risk of believing that a successful pilot somewhere could be scaled anywhere else. This is the old technology transfer philosophy that we are leaving behind us, suggested Woltering.

“We’re talking about transforming the lives of farmers, but we too have to transform the way we think about and do scaling,” he noted. “Scaling requires different skills and capacities than bringing a pilot project to success. A lot can be learnt from system approaches, where scaling is embedded as a means to an end.”

But paying too much attention to only one type of context can also be dangerous. That’s often the case of innovations for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

According to Alliance of Bioversity-CIAT Senior Scientist Augusto Castro-Nunez, innovations for climate mitigation typically only account for the biophysical context. Hence, measurements of emissions dominate the space of such innovations.

“Climate mitigation is about lowering emissions itself, so an innovative approach that incentivizes sustainable land use can go far a longer way than any tool for measurements in achieving low-emissions food systems,” added Castro-Nunez, who leads the scaling work package of Mitigate+ and the low-emissions food systems research theme at the Alliance.


See more information on Mitigate+ here


Photo credit: Rice trial plots on the CIAT campus in Colombia / Neil Palmer / Alliance of Bioversity-CIAT

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