Transforming agricultural research and development systems to meet 21st Century needs for climate action

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Research paradigms suitable for 20th-century challenges, such as the Green Revolution, need to give way to those better suited to 21st-century challenges. A change from a traditional science model, which is characterized often by siloed science funding, intense competition, and a lack of trust among stakeholders, to a model that encourages science to cater directly to societal needs. This can be achieved by co-creating actionable knowledge and finding solutions tailored to the intricate sustainability issues identified by both local and global stakeholders. Additional paradigms guiding agricultural research must also address social justice, environmental stewardship, and indigenous knowledge.

Climate shocks to agriculture threaten food security, especially in the Global South. Poverty and malnutrition are rising and there are dire warnings of what is to come. Agricultural research and development systems need to generate multiple game-changing innovations in order to transform our agricultural systems and ensure that they are climate-resilient, productive, sustainable, and equitable.

The challenge is immense and there are no shortages of sound advice on required directions for research. This is particularly the case for CGIAR, a global partnership that unites international organizations engaged in research to reduce rural poverty, increase food security, and improve human health and nutrition, while fostering sustainable management of natural resources.

At the 2022 Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, 45 world leaders launched The Breakthrough Agenda Report as part of a commitment to make clean technologies and sustainable practices more attractive, affordable and accessible by 2030. The report argues that for the agriculture sector, the breakthrough goal is that “Climate-resilient, sustainable agriculture is the most attractive and widely adopted option for farmers everywhere by 2030”

There is no single transformative agricultural innovation to realize this goal, but rather “synergistic interactions among multiple game-changing innovations in hundreds of national and local agricultural systems” that cumulatively lead to the transformation of global agriculture, according to a report. A transformation which is urgently needed to address climate challenges.

As agricultural researchers, we relate to the multifarious suggested priority research areas, recommendations and critiques of CGIAR and other agricultural research organizations. We believe, however, that discussions to date obscure fundamental and wider aspects about how research is done to ensure that it contributes to the needed radical transformation of food, land and water systems to meet 21st Century needs.

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