Farmers’ knowledge + scientific knowledge + biodiversity = sustainable food systems

Farmers’ knowledge + scientific knowledge + biodiversity = sustainable food systems

On the International Day for Biological Diversity, 23 May 2016, Gerda Verburg, Permanent Representative of the Netherlands to the UN and incoming Coordinator of the ‘Scaling Up Nutrition’ Movement guest blogs on Ann Tutwiler’s DG Dialogues. She explains why farmers’ knowledge is a vital asset when…

May 27, 2016 - Last update: July 4, 2022

On the International Day for Biological Diversity, 23 May 2016, Gerda Verburg, Permanent Representative of the Netherlands to the UN and incoming Coordinator of the ‘Scaling Up Nutrition’ Movement guest blogs on Ann Tutwiler’s DG Dialogues. She explains why farmers’ knowledge is a vital asset when it comes to planning, implementing and scaling-up agricultural research-for-development efforts. Click here to see the original article.

In 2015, the global community agreed on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), thus committing to ambitious targets to end poverty, hunger and malnutrition, ensure human well-being and produce food from agricultural systems that are biodiverse, nutritious and sustainable.

Biodiversity is increasingly recognized as an essential part of the solution when it comes to delivering on several of the 17 SDGs. Not just the SDGs that focus on halting biodiversity loss but through its use as a sustainable agricultural tool that can improve food production systems, including their ability to adapt to climate change.

That biodiversity matters for sustainable food systems is not news – farmers around the world have known this for millennia. Yet the knowledge that they have about how to use different species and varieties on their farms for productive and resilient agricultural systems is often undervalued, underestimated and ignored. I grew up on a farm and have worked with farmers throughout my career. I know that this knowledge is part of their DNA – because they have to adapt to changes all the time. But just like biodiversity, this valuable knowledge is in danger of being lost, when it should be used in terms of informing and developing research-for-sustainable impact efforts.

When I was the Minister for Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality in the Netherlands, I once received a proposal for agricultural research that to me seemed to bear no relation to the real needs of farmers. I asked: “Did you discuss this with farmers?” The answer was no. I decided to organize a meeting with farmers, we got their feedback and that was the start of a much more farmer-oriented research programme.

This is why I expect agricultural research-for-development organizations to put farmers and their needs at the centre. Researchers should not arrive in the field with their ‘ready-made’ approach, but first listen to the farmers and their communities to better understand their needs in order to come forward with solutions that fit, are durable and scalable.

In this way, both the scientists and the farmers benefit. Farmers are able to voice their own needs and identify opportunities and challenges several years ahead of time. They can understand the tradeoffs involved in adopting a new approach – for example, if they grow more of an alternative crop, what will they grow less of? How will this affect them? All of this is vital intelligence that research-for-impact can draw upon. In return, the scientists bring specific expertise on how to mix and match different genetic traits for improved production and resilience, including growing crops that are both climate-smart and nutrition-smart.

Farmers in Bihar, India. Credit: Bioversity International/C. ZanzanainiFarmers need to be in the driving-seat. They should be involved in designing the research programme as well as in implementing the research interventions that are focused on how to support them. What we need is a paradigm shift in the world of research. Working with farmers at the grassroots level must become the new normality and donors must rethink their financial support for research: focus support on research implementation at grassroots and on making results scalable. In this way, results become replicable and more widespread.

Such an innovative approach means that information on a range of important factors is then fed back to the scientists – experiences and expressed desires of farmers from yield, to climate change, to soils, to resilience, to taste, to whether a crop will sell at the market. These factors matter to improve research programmes and make results applicable and implementable in the field, shoulder to shoulder with farmers.

I’m happy to see that there is some change into this direction. But more and better is needed for the best possible impact for farmers, climate, society and best value for money for donors. Success should increasingly be measured not only on the high impact of the journals that results are published in, but on the high impact of how those results are supportive for farmers to improve performance and income. This requires new ways to communicate results – farmers need tools and approaches they can use and share long after the scientists have gone onto a new research programme. By actively participating from the beginning in the research, farmers and their communities are able to test and implement innovative approaches, build ownership and share their enhanced knowledge and experiences with others.

If we could create a new agricultural research system from scratch, I would suggest we start with this simple premise: farmers’ knowledge + scientific knowledge + collaboration between both + biodiversity = sustainable food.

Then bring all the other stakeholders into the equation. Include donors, policymakers, private sector, nutritionists, environmentalists, agricultural research institutions, grassroots organizations – everyone. Agree a common objective. Build trust. It’s a game-changer and it will be time consuming but this is how the SDGs will be delivered – it is more than just agreeing a document. And the result will be measurable, replicable and thus satisfying and inspiring.
Gerda Verburg. WikimediaOn the International Day for Biological Diversity we need to shake up the system. Farmer knowledge and biodiversity must be at the centre of that change.

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