Day two, morning: partnerships, trade-offs, efficiency and effectiveness

Climate & Natural resources17 Jun 2009Dominic Glover

This conference is supposed to be about ‘collaboration’ and ‘partnerships’, but what do those concepts mean? In the discussions so far, ‘partnership’ often seems to be used as little more than a proxy term for something else. It seems to encompass many different kinds of institutional arrangements, including the participation of private companies in agricultural input markets, information-sharing among governments and international organisations, or the collaboration of national and international institutes in multinational research programmes. These are certainly very broad and open-ended interpretations of what ‘partnership’ might mean.

Mostly, the phrase ‘we need partnerships’ seems to be a euphemism for ‘we need your resources’ – including your cash, you know-how and your technologies. This is the contemporary reality for international agricultural research. With the arrival of new philanthropic donors endowed with deep pockets, the proprietary entanglements that impede the free exchange of genes, germplasm and technologies, and the growing capacity of national agricultural research systems in countries like Brazil, India and China, partnerships are a fact of life for the CG system if it is to stay relevant and get things done.

For that reason, the conference theme is well-chosen. But has the conference done justice to that theme, so far? Overwhelmingly, the discussion has focused on technical challenges and technological opportunities. In each parallel workshop, I have heard that the problems are understood and the technologies are either already available or in an advanced stage of development. The call is then for the technologies to be refined and applied.

The focus of Bill Clark’s plenary presentation on the first morning – on institutions, processes and managerial challenges – has largely fallen by the wayside. Why does a conference like this one find it so difficult to get to grips with the kinds of social, economic and programmatic issues that will help to determine whether the next generation of technical interventions will produce the kinds of outcomes we hope to see?

Another issue that has been largely submerged is the acute difficulty entailed in trying to choose between alternative technical pathways, taking into account the awkward trade-offs that must be involved. If agriculture is to be multifunctional – that is, to produce biofuels, bioplastics and other non-food products alongside more food – then competition over the use of scarce resources will very likely intensify even further.

Almost every speaker has acknowledged the growing pressure on scarce land and water if we are to feed a growing human population. But the conference also includes a parallel workshop that is addressing the potential to move to a diversified, ‘bio-based’ economy. Is the answer simply to grow multifunctional crops that can be used for food and other purposes simultaneously? Or will the trade-offs not be so easy to resolve?

Sarah Park (CSIRO, Australia) made a great presentation in one of the parallel sessions this morning in which she pointed out that decisions that are rational according to one index can be sub-optimal according to another measure and therefore maladaptive for sustainability and resilience. For instance, if fertiliser prices are high, it may be economically rational for a farmer to apply less fertiliser and accept a lower yield; her operation remains profitable, but at the macro scale, food availability falls and food security is jeopardised. So, we need to consider not only measures of economic and ecological efficiency but also effectiveness and social equity.

I hope to follow up on those issues later today. For now, a final note: yesterday, I promised to find details of the new funding programme announced by Deborah Delmer. You can read all about the BREAD programme here.