LOS BAÑOS, LAGUNA, The Philippines – The Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA) and the Asian Farmers’ Association for Sustainable Rural Development (AFA) jointly organized a two-day virtual regional consultation titled “Engaging with Academia and Research Institutions (ARIs) to Support Family Farmers and Food System Transformation During and Post COVID-19 Pandemic in Asia.” Held on 8-9 December 2021 via Zoom and Facebook Live, this was attended by international participants coming from different academic and research institutions (ARIs), nongovernment organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs), government agencies, and development partners. The consultation was held in collaboration with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche (CIRAD), and Groupe de Recherches et d'Echanges Technologiques (GRET), with technical assistance from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
The regional consultation highlighted the importance of collaboration among ARIs, family farmers’ organizations, government agencies, and development partners in Asia in enhancing the livelihoods of family farmers and developing their capacities to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic through agroecology. Several recommendations emerged from the regional consultation, primarily on the transformation of agri-food systems. This transformation requires pragmatic thinking and farmer-led approaches, as well as inclusive partnerships and digital transition.
In her welcome remarks, FAO-HQ Chief Scientist Ismahane Elouafi emphasized that regional and local consultations strengthen the scientific and innovative components of collective action and decision making. She mentioned that ARIs enrich agricultural knowledge to improve rural livelihoods. However, ARIs should also acknowledge that small-scale farmers are innovators and must be empowered to be able to co-design, co-create, and co-innovate. Significant progress and impact can be made when interventions are treated collaboratively. Hence, linkages are a must.
During the first day of the consultation, keynote speakers discussed the challenges, initiatives, and the roles of ARIs in supporting the transition toward sustainable food system and agroecology mainstreaming. Mr. Pierre Ferrand, Agriculture Officer (Agroecology) and Regional Focal Point for Family Farming, FAO-RAP, served as the moderator for the first two sessions.
For institutional initiatives, Dr. Md. Baktear Hossain, Director of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Agriculture Center, recommended strategic policy review on family farming through capacity development and technical and financial support to implement regional action plan on family farming, among others. Meanwhile, Dr. Glenn B. Gregorio, SEARCA Director, pointed out that ARIs should produce graduates with transformative mindsets who are keen to understand and adapt to complex changes in the food system and society as a whole. Dr. Susan Vize, Regional Adviser for Social and Human Sciences, UNESCO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, emphasized the importance of integrating sustainability into agricultural education, particularly in providing learning opportunities and delivering services at all levels. Dr. Hildegard Lingnau, Executive Secretary of the Global Forum on Agricultural Research and Innovation (GFAR), shared some of their collective actions on forgotten foods (foods that are neglected by research despite their intrinsic nutritional value and resilience) and inclusive digital transformation to revitalize regional agricultural productivity and mitigate effects of climate change.
On the other hand, Dr. Fergus Sinclair, Chief Scientist, Integrated Leadership and Management Group, Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF), introduced the Transformative Partnership Platform (TPP) on agroecological approaches to build resilient livelihoods and landscapes. TPP invests on agroecosystem management and whole food system to encourage farming that is in harmony with nature. Dr. Matthew McCartney, Principal Researcher of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) presented the OneCGIAR initiative on scaling-out and continuous innovation for agroecological transitions in geographically-targeted food systems, co-developing business models and financing modalities to support agroecological innovations, and promoting cross-sectoral policy integration to mainstream agroecological principles. Ms. Ilaria Firmian, Regional Specialist, Asia and the Pacific Division, International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) identified some of the major challenges that family farmers face. These include lack of access to ICT needed for inclusive rural information and communication services, limited human capital and capacity building, limited knowledge-sharing capacities of producer organizations, and limited access to markets.
The session that followed was a sharing of from-the-ground experiences of different agricultural organizations. Mr. Vijay Kumar Thallam, Advisor to Government of Andhra Pradesh for Agriculture and Cooperation, India shared their experiences on community-based natural farming movement in their area. He emphasized that farmers are also scientists who, instead of writing research papers, are busy improving their lives through agriculture. Hence, farmers’ works and innovation should be respected. Ms. Estrella Penunia, AFA Secretary General, discussed the challenges and successes in pursuing AFA’s initiatives on agroecology for family farmers. She emphasized that a clear, systematic redirection of investment, funding, research and policy focus on agroecology by, with, and for small-scale farmers is needed. Ms. Lim Li Ching, Researcher, Third World Network and IPES-FOOD, presented how research can be transformed as support to agroecology and sustainable food systems. Transforming the research agenda, she said, would require co-creation of knowledge, farmers’ participation, focus on the role of women, knowledge sharing and networking, and resource mobilization. Ms. Chukki Nanjundaswamy, Coordinator, Amrita Bhoomi Centre, suggested that universities should be careful in receiving funding from private companies to avoid biased research results that are not pro-farmers. She also stressed the need to work collaboratively with farmers to develop relevant research and to effectively scale-up agroecology. Ms. Tammi Jonas, President of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA) pointed out that economic, political, knowledge, and cultural lock-ins can limit the ability of farmers to shift to agroecology. She stated that constructing knowledge for food sovereignty, agroecology and biocultural diversity entails reversing top-down research.
The consultation’s first day was concluded with a panel discussion to provide insights on fostering collaboration between ARIs and family farmer organizations (FFOs) towards sustainable and green rural transformation. The panel discussion touched on the following issues: existing challenges for education and extension to reach out to smallholder farmers and their organizations, the extent and limitation of digital transformation, and strategies to connect ARIs and family farming organizations. The panelists were Mr. Florante Villas of the Asian Partnership for the Development of Human Resources in Rural Areas (AsiaDHRRA), Ms. Jie-Hye Lee of the Korea University International Law Research Center, Dr. Epsi Euriga of Indonesia’s Ministry of Agriculture, Dr. Namita Singh of the Digital Green-India, and Mr. Zainal Arifin Fuad of Serikat Petani Indonesia (SPI) and La Via Campesina. In the panel discussion moderated by Mr. Francois Enten of GRET, the panelists agreed that collaboration between ARIs and FFOs can be fostered through increased government subsidies to family farmers and agroecology, continuous dialogue between agroecology advocates and family farmers, establishment of infrastructures to support digital transition, and promotion of agroecology adoption using Big Data.
During the second day of the regional consultation, the organized parallel sessions were divided into four major topics: enhancing rural communities’ initiatives and transfer of technologies; regional/local policies and strategies to support family farmers and sustainability of rural livelihoods and communities; multi-stakeholder networks and platforms enabling co-creation of knowledge and participatory research; and innovation in higher education institutions (HEIs) curriculum to better address agroecology and family farming.
The parallel sessions elicited some key strategies to support rural transformation, agroecology mainstreaming, and FFOs in building back greener and more resilient agri-food systems. Some of the key strategies include: 1) redefinition of roles of ARIs; 2) customization of digital learning innovations to address the needs of communities; 3) integration of technical knowledge, field evidence-based initiatives, and interpersonal skills with higher education curricula to capacitate the young generation; 4) conduct of regular job market assessment to match curriculum to professional sector; 5) localization of agroecology and supporting of family farms through social community entrepreneurship; 6) investment on R&D potential of universities to generate more agri-entrepreneurs; 7) employment of adaptive scaling strategies, dialogue platforms, agroecology conducive policies, blended financial mechanisms, and public-private partnerships; 8) designing and nurturing alternative practices in innovation while creating an enabling environment for upscaling; and 9) connecting gender, nutrition, and climate-resilient agricultural practices to agroecology.
Proceedings of the regional consultation is planned for publication by early 2022. This event is considered as the first step towards a longer-term process aiming at conducting a participatory assessment of the different ARIs in the region and the development of ad hoc projects to support better inclusion of agroecology in curriculum and research programs.