Tom_formalIn the lead up to the 2016 Science Forum, we have asked Steering Committee (SC) members and speakers to answer a few questions related to the Forum’s focus on agricultural research pathways to inclusive rural development.

The first is Professor Tom Tomich, member of the CGIAR Independent Science and Partnerships Council (ISPC) and on the SC for this Science Forum. Tom is Director of the Agricultural Sustainability Institute and Professor at the University of California at Davis.

Q: Can you tell us briefly about yourself and your involvement in agricultural research?

I was raised on a small family farm growing nearly 100 different varieties of tree fruit in the Sacramento Valley. I received my bachelors in economics from UC Davis and PhD in agricultural economics from Stanford. I have worked in a dozen countries in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, including significant periods in Egypt, Indonesia, Kenya, and, since 2007, back in my home state of California. My research spans agriculture and farming systems, economic development, food policy, and natural resource management. I am the founding director of the Agricultural Sustainability Institute and inaugural holder of the WK Kellogg Endowed Chair in Sustainable Food Systems at UC Davis. I direct the UC statewide Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP). I also serve on a number of committees and boards, including the Independent Science and Partnership Council (ISPC) of the CGIAR.

The objective of the 2016 Science Forum is to rethink the pathways for agricultural research to stimulate inclusive development of rural economies in an era of climate change. The Forum will marshal evidence and build on lessons learned to date, to suggest an updated list of priority research areas and approaches which involve more strategic and inclusive engagement with partners.

Q: What are the most significant ways that developing countries can achieve greater rural prosperity? What does this prosperity look like?

No country – putting aside city states – has achieved prosperity without growth in productivity in multiple sectors (agriculture, industry, services) and in fact for many countries this growth process has been mutually reinforcing. So while agricultural productivity does play a central role, agriculture cannot do the job alone. Equally important regarding prosperity, which includes elimination of the interrelated scourges of mass poverty and chronic hunger, history also indicates that equity of distribution of these gains is essential. The role of agriculture in these development processes received a great deal of attention from researchers in the 1950s-1980s, but interest waned by the 1990s and some of these insights have been lost. Moreover, there has been profound change in many countries – indeed most – so there also is a need to update these strategic insights for the economic, political, social, environmental, and structural realities of the early 21st Century.

Q: What are some agricultural research pathways that have really contributed to greater rural prosperity?  How did they achieve this?

The pathways, through which agricultural research could contribute to reductions in poverty and associated vulnerabilities, are multi-dimensional and contextual. Eight examples that the ISPC and Steering Committee came up with are (please note that this list is not comprehensive):

  • innovations can increase smallholder productivity, raising their incomes in cash and kind; innovations can also reduce risk of losses.
  • improved marketing and policies that enhance competition and rural access to markets can lower prices farmers pay for inputs and raise prices for goods they sell, raising incentives for investment and production as well as smallholder profits.
  • improved marketing and policies, combined with appropriate innovations and information, also can expand and diversify smallholders’ production options, including horticulture and livestock.
  • broad-based agricultural productivity growth also can impact rural non-farm economic opportunities (multiplier effects), in part by expanding demand both on- and off-farm and, thereby, influencing rural employment and wages.
  • technological, institutional, and policy innovations can improve natural resource management and environmental health as well as strengthen capacities to cope with risks, including climate change, thereby reducing vulnerability and increasing certainty of returns.
  • complementary policy reforms and institutional innovations to improve access to key public goods (e.g. basic education and transport infrastructure) can help diversify income and employment opportunities both within and outside agriculture. Policy and institutional innovations can also result in security of tenure and access to resources (i.e. land, fisheries, grazing, forests, water for rural populations) and thereby have implications for poverty and vulnerability reduction. Finally, such reforms can enhance governance and communal rights to exploitation and management of the local commons.
  • more generally, investments in people and institutions can empower the rural poor and improve their livelihoods through greater access to information and strengthened organizational capacities.
  • food policy, combined with increases in food output, can decrease prices consumers pay for basic staples or create safety nets for the poor as well as increasing access to more nutritious foods in both rural and urban areas.

Q: What does agricultural research need to do differently so it will contribute to rural prosperity in an era of climate change? What does climate change mean for the research pathways we follow? 

I see progress on these questions as fundamental to the purpose of the Forum. In the 20th Century (i.e., the view in 2.1 above) scholars of economic development focused on sources of growth and equity of distribution. Since at least the 1990s – and certainly now with manifestations of impacts of climate change already apparent, it is clear we cannot think of the path to prosperity as assured – the sustainability and resilience of the food system (and our economies and societies more generally) must also be considered. Vulnerability of the food system to climate change is one of several interacting sources of uncertainty that means we also need to consider the wellbeing of people together with health of ecosystems. This also means that we need to give more attention to relationships across time – will short term gains in prosperity really be sustainable for future generations? To me, the big realization of the transition from the late 20th into the early 21st century has been that human activities are the primary driver of change (for better or worse) in the Earth’s life support systems, including our food systems, and we need to take seriously the strategically-important system feedbacks (epitomized by climate change, but also by a nexus like climate x energy x water) as the foundations of sustainable prosperity in the 21st Century.

Q: What is your expectation for the Forum? What do you want to take home from Addis Ababa and the people you meet there?

 I’ve been surprised (and disappointed) by confusion and lack of clarity about the key cause and effect relationships (and the broader contextual aspects) linking agricultural R4D with prosperity for both rural and (increasingly) urban populations. While I don’t foresee complete consensus on these big questions, I do believe we can make a great start in that direction. This is an urgent research agenda in its own right for the CGIAR system, for national partners, for academics, and for others.

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