Day one, evening: Many directions, many jargons

Climate & Natural resources16 Jun 2009Dominic Glover

It has been a lively afternoon at the Science Forum. The conference broke up into six parallel workshops, which discussed issues from gene sequencing to resilience, ICTs to eco-efficiencies and biofuels to biofortification. It would be impossible to summarise all that was discussed in just a few words. For one thing, I could only be physically present in two of the workshops, switching rooms either side of the tea break. Fortunately, a final report-back at the end of the day provided an effective overview of everything that was discussed.

This afternoon’s hot ticket – attracting more than 80 participants – was the workshop on the resilience of natural resource systems. The workshop grappled with the tricky issue of finding the appropriate balance between dynamism and stability. People need systems for managing natural resources that are flexible and adaptable at the same time as they are reasonably stable and predictable. A key challenge is to understand why and when systems flip between one equilibrium state and another – as well as whether, and under what conditions, such a switch is reversible.

As usual in such a conference, the air is full of jargon. Should we be talking about ‘resilience’ or ‘sustainability’? ‘Adaptability’ or ‘vulnerability’? The conversation also ranges over ‘scales’ and ‘levels’, ‘complexity’ and ‘efficiency’, ‘tipping points’ and ‘livelihoods’, as well as many other concepts. A central insight is that resilience is not simply a ‘good thing’; changing in response to shocks depends on the specific contexts, causes and consequences of change.

The resilience workshop represents a stark contrast to the discussion in my other workshop of the afternoon, ‘Beyond the yield curve’. In that group, speakers rehearsed the daunting array of technical challenges that face plant breeders and discussed the range of exciting new technical options for tackling them. This time, the jargon is of ‘proteomics’, ‘metabolomics’, ‘zinc fingers’ and ‘double haploid breeding’.

The most vivid message from that workshop is of the mountainous quantities of genomic data now being churned out by automated genetic sequencing laboratories. With costs falling continuously, genetic sequencing will no longer be a serious constraint to plant research. But what will the CGIAR and the wider global agricultural research system do with these vast databases? Deciding how to use this mountain of data will be a key challenge.

At the end of a long afternoon, we had all too little time to study the posters presented in a room next to the lobby of the conference centre. Then, coaches (for visitors to Wageningen) and bicycles (for the locals) whisked participants to the Forum, the newest building on Wageningen’s new university campus. The university authorities are strangely proud of this gloomy, fortress-like edifice with its airless atrium and terrible acoustics. But the echoing lobby was filled with animated conversations, while students dressed in insect costumes served antipasti decorated with grubs and chocolates decorated with fried locusts – ‘foods of the future’ that were greeted warmly by some participants and regarded suspiciously by others.

Fortunately for the squeamish ones, the bugs were not the only food on the menu, but before the buffet was officially opened for business we had the pleasure of congratulating Dr. Gebisa Ejeta on the award of the prestigious World Food Prize for 2009. Dr. Ejeta was introduced by Sir Gordon Conway and the university Rector before making a brief, gracious speech.

Before the evening drew to a close, I very much enjoyed a side event arranged to launch two books: Farmer First Revisited and Innovation Africa (I have a small piece in the Farmer First volume). Both books place farmers at the centre of agricultural research and innovation and highlight their capacity to experiment and innovate – making both volumes directly relevant to the conference and the CGIAR’s agenda.

Tomorrow, the parallel workshops will continue for one more session, while plenary meetings will attempt to draw together the disparate strands of the conference – which will be a major challenge. It should be another interesting and stimulating day. Please come back tomorrow for more updates. And please leave your comments and thoughts below.