Wednesday, 23 February 2011


John Beddington, the UK Government's Chief Scientific Advisor, said earlier this month that scientists should be "grossly intolerant" towards "pseudoscience" and suggested that the media gives too much space to non-scientific commenters on science. But how intolerant can science afford to be? Andy Stirling, co-director of STEPS, has joined the debate in a piece for the Research Research blog:

"The point is that the basic aspirational principles of science offer the best means to challenge the ubiquitously human distorting pressures of self-serving privilege, hubris, prejudice and power. Among these principles are exactly the scepticism and tolerance against which Beddington is railing (ironically) so emotionally! Of course, scientific practices like peer review, open publication and acknowledgement of uncertainty all help reinforce the positive impacts of these underlying qualities. But, in the real world, any rational observer has to note that these practices are themselves imperfect. Although rarely achieved, it is inspirational ideals of universal, communitarian scepticism—guided by progressive principles of reasoned argument, integrity, pluralism, openness and, of course, empirical experiment—that best embody the great civilising potential of science itself."

>> Full post: Let's hear it for scepticism: its suppression is one of the principal threats to science (Research Blogs)

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Tuesday, 22 February 2011


By Alan Nicol, IDS and Ana Cascão, Stockholm International Water Institute

Today is official Nile Day in the basin and celebrations will be taking place in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the Nile riparian zones. For the assembled dignitaries, however, these are nervous times. This has already been a momentous year for the Nile basin - and 2011 is still only two months old. Egypt and Sudan, which have divided up the river’s flow for 50 years, are now subject to major internal political change. In Sudan a decisive referendum result is leading to the emergence of an 11th Nile state whilst in Egypt, the basin’s most monolithic system is undergoing political convulsions.

Viewed from an upstream perspective, this may be a gratifying sight; and a sign too that the Egyptian-Sudanese ‘dyad’ – which has effectively governed the river since the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement (NWA) – is now falling apart. If not bust completely, it is certainly under unprecedented pressure.

The political direction of any new Southern Sudanese state will be watched carefully in Cairo. Of immediate concern will be any decision that Southern Sudan makes to join the recently-formed ‘breakaway’ upstream states. Their emergence frustrated Egypt and Sudan last year, when five states pushed ahead with a new cooperation framework in spite of downstream protests.

Right now Egypt is more preoccupied with internal protests that are busy reshaping the political scene and generating a more plural political future. This could reshape the way Egypt behaves within existing basin cooperation arrangements – including the Nile Basin Initiative – and engender a wider range of voices in decision making in the basin. But an alternative, and less welcome, outcome would be the emergence of a new politics which would gather disparate political voices around renewed ‘resource nationalism’ - taking Egypt back to the 1970s and 1980s, and towards further belligerence with upstream states. On the brighter side, however, a new political pluralism could generate a more developmental and equitable outlook by Egypt, and could end in the re-establishment of relations with sub-Saharan African states on a more inclusive footing.

For an independent Southern Sudan, the choice is between adhering to the existing 1959 Agreement and demanding a share of Sudan’s existing 18.5 billion cubic metres a year of water (Egypt has 55.5 billion under the NWA), or opting out of the agreement and looking southwards and eastwards towards closer alignment with states of the East African Community – and Ethiopia. If Juba chooses to demand a slice of the existing agreement (say, half of Sudan’s current quota) it may have to agree to completion of the controversial Jonglei Canal project as quid pro quo. This will help to conserve waters flowing through the Sudd (Southern Sudan’s vast swamp and a globally important ecosystem) and increase flows to downstream states. But the Jonglei Canal is hugely controversial, and its initial construction was a key trigger of the long-running civil war.

If the southerners decide to look to stronger alliances upstream and join the ‘breakaway bloc’ this may strengthen their position with respect to future investment under the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA). Already many donors are viewing the ‘upstreamers’ as capable of taking the CFA forward without Egypt and Sudan. Rapidly expanding markets within an integrated East Africa are one such investor magnet – and, crucially, for the Chinese in particular.

During 2011 both Egypt and Sudan will be invited to join the CFA one last time by the upstream states. Their reaction will shed light on the re-configuration of relationships between old and new Nile basin states. One state watching attentively is Ethiopia. Last week Prime Minister Meles Zenawi announced new hydropower projects in the Blue Nile basin. This apparent attempt to take advantage of weaker downstream neighbours is clearly provocative, but also a sign of increasing upstream confidence. At the same time, however, Meles has also been careful to keep downward pressures on food prices, mindful of the potential for unrest in his own country.

Alan Nicol is a Research Fellow at IDS and the STEPS Centre
Ana Cascão is Project Manager at SIWI

>> Our research on Water
>> Stockholm International Water Institute

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Thursday, 17 February 2011


Our STEPS Water Seminar on 22 February is with Ana Cascão from Stockholm International Water Institute, who's recently returned from working in Egypt and Sudan. Ana is a political scientist with a particular interest in the politics of water in the Middle East and North-East Africa. Her main research topic is the hydropolitics in the Nile River Basin. Her seminar will be entitled "Breaking Waters: The Birth of a New Nile State?"

An 11th Nile basin state has almost certainly been added as a result of the referendum in South Sudan. This subdivision of a key Nile state – the most midstream of them all – has important political, economic and social consequences for international efforts at harnessing cooperation and stimulating integration amongst the basin states.

How South Sudan plays its future role will be critical to the whole project of Nile cooperation. It has the capacity to bind together with North Sudan (and Egypt) and maintain the status quo, or look south, to the rapid integration of Nile equatorial states around the East African Community.

To participate in the seminar, email

>> Event details
>> Seminar flyer (pdf)

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Wednesday, 16 February 2011


STEPS Centre researcher Paul Forster is blogging from the International One Health Congress in Melbourne. This is his second and final post from the Congress.

Three full days on from its start on Monday (adding up to 38 hours of hard conferencing plus a further 38 hours of parallel sessions), the 1st International One Health Congress in Melbourne concluded this Wednesday evening, resolving to... meet again in a year or two. Encompassing an astounding number and range of subjects and disciplines - a glance at just two hours from today’s parallel sessions throws up land use, laboratory services, virology, epidemiology, food security, wildlife management, institutional structures, curriculum development, trade, and public health, for example - serious mutterings emerged in the concluding session regarding possible needs for a ‘One Health’ society and a ‘One Health’ journal.

The main issue that remained to be resolved was critical: what is ‘One Health’? How is this putative, cross-cutting, neo-discipline that aspires to link human health, animal health and what is perhaps best described as environmental health, to be defined? At the evangelical end of the spectrum, the enthusiasts talk of a 'movement', urging the laggards to 'get out of their comfort zones'; and are keen to broaden the enterprise to include nutrition, livelihoods and trade, for example, and set metaphorical explosive charges against the thick concrete walls of the silos that exist within many existing institutions and much existing thinking. The less enthusiastic - there are not many, but one or two are vocal, perhaps mischievously so - press for a clear definition, looking to both tear down existing silos and create new ones.

Aside from a definition, which I’d suggest is unnecessary (clichéd phrases like 'let many flowers bloom', or 'horses for courses' come to mind), the other significant matter outstanding at the congress’s conclusion was the need to quantitatively prove that benefits would accrue from the One Health approach. Qualitatively, there’s little or no dispute that a One Health approach makes sense; but as one World Bank representative put it: we need to define some economic drivers for One Health. This is difficult, if not impossible, especially if the enterprise remains loosely defined, with any number of useful fuzzy edges. Estimates suggest that the major zoonotic diseases (excluding HIV/AIDS) have had impacts of at least $80 billion over the last 12 years, but those doing the sums stress that this is more of a guess than an estimate, and excludes the likes of ‘ripple’ and ‘overspill’ effects. There remains a monumental task for someone with both imagination and an extensive spreadsheet.

Having got my two reasonably well rehearsed presentations ('Responding to highly pathogenic avian influenza – surveillance in Indonesia' and 'Responding to highly pathogenic avian influenza – contract farming, market chains, and debt relations') out of the way, my main task today was to fly the STEPS flag as a discussion speaker in a plenary session. I was speaking alongside, among others, David Butler-Jones (Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer) and Jane Halton (currently Secretary of Australia’s Department of Health and Ageing, and a past President of the World Health Assembly). Following in Andy Stirling’s clear footsteps, and his paper 'Keep it complex' in Nature in December last year (Nature 468:1029-1031), the job involved introducing upwards of 300 delegates to what was for most of them a relatively novel approach to a fundamental concept: risk. In a nutshell, Stirling suggests that a narrow focus on risk is an inadequate response to incomplete knowledge. As my synopsis continued, I had a feeling that the panel was ever-so-discreetly shuffling their chairs away from mine, and the audience itself was distant, all but invisible beyond the stage lighting.

As it turned out, at coffee afterwards, it felt better: congratulations and even a "bravely said" from one particularly respected colleague. There were also a dozen requests for Andy’s paper to be sent on. A success perhaps then, both qualitatively and quantitatively defined.

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Monday, 14 February 2011


Photo: SARS Mural, from Steel Monkey's Flickr photostream (creative commons)

STEPS Centre researcher Paul Forster is blogging from the International One Health Congress in Melbourne. This is the first of his posts from the Congress.

"Are you from the human side, or the animal side?" The question came from a doctor - an epidemiologist - from Bangladesh. Hmmm. We were twelve hours adrift from London, and it was the first coffee break of what was meant to be the morning at the 1st International One Health Congress in Melbourne. Subtitled (just a shade dramatically) 'Human Health, Animal Health, the Environment and Global Survival', the congress has drawn around 650 global delegates to drive forwards a still-fluid agenda fostered most largely by (in reverse chronological order) the emergence of bird flu, SARS, and HIV-AIDS: all diseases which have crossed the species barrier from animals to infect, and kill, humans. Feeling barely human myself (i.e. capable of speech), I launched into my socio-politico 'science isn't everything' pitch, wondering why there are no doctors, yet, who are charged with attending full-time to the environment.

My questioner had however put his finger on one nub of the issue - the institutional, educational and even emotional divides that separate human health issues from animal health issues, which are well-characterised by another, more rhetorical, question put to me later in the day. "If your Prime Minister, or my President, had the Minister for Health and the Minister for Agriculture sitting across his desk and they did not agree, who would he take most notice of?" Accepting the fact that animals don't have votes, the point had to be accepted, although almost three-quarters of the world's new diseases since World War II have been transmitted to people from animals, a total of around 30 in the last twenty-five years - the most recent of which, H1N1 influenza ('Swine flu'), spread around the world from a pig farm in Mexico in just nine weeks.

Drawn by the promise of "an exciting week of 'One Health' science", the attendees appeared largely to have subscribed to an important, and somewhat humbling, concept. Most medical doctors dealing with infectious diseases are delighted that an issue obvious to them is being taken up more widely. Veterinarians are pleased that their professional importance in the global order of things, scandalously underestimated to date, is being recognised. Epidemiologists on both side of the divide are delighted to be able to say, with a knowing smile: "humans and animals are biologically exactly the same". Political scientists might wish to nuance this slightly, but the point is well made, and well taken. It also provides social scientists with all manner of opportunities to examine and re-examine relatively difficult concepts such as uncertainty, and to stress relatively simple ones such as social justice.

Given that the 'One Health' concept, first formulated in 2004 by the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, is now six or seven years old; and that the notion has been enthusiastically taken up, and developed, by the international agencies charged with responding to avian and pandemic influenza from 2006 onwards; three big questions - at least to this participant - hung over the first day. (1) What happens next? How is this concept driven forwards so that change happens urgently over the next year or two, rather than incrementally, over the decades that it takes for a new generation of health professionals to be trained? (2) Given the willingness of the two major international agencies concerned - the United Nations World Health Organization (UN WHO) and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO) - to engage, both conceptually and practically: whither the (officially non-UN) Paris-based World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), which appears determined to maintain a shadowy, almost non-existent, presence on the sidelines? (3) Perhaps most importantly, who stands for the environment in this professionally-charged debate?

It (the environment) could set a conceptually simple, solid, and popular foundation for the entire enterprise. As it turned out, it was about the only relevant entity I did not hear discussed on the first day of the congress. Human health or animal health? Put it in those terms, and I am cheering for environmental health.


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Thursday, 10 February 2011


Photo: Solar technology in the CIFRES carpark, by Adrian Ely

By Adrian Ely, Manifesto project convenor

In the car park of the International Centre for Training and Research in Solar Energy (CIFRES) in Dakar, lie the remains of successive attempts to introduce solar technology into Senegal. Each day the researchers drink tea prepared in a solar oven based on the principle of the greenhouse effect, but the same technology has not been taken up widely in villages across the country. Now researchers are trying a new approach that involves community members from the outset.

It has long been recognised that the introduction of technologies without regard to people's cultural contexts and preferences often ends in low adoption and ineffective use. The introduction of solar cookers in Africa in the 1970s largely failed due to cooking preferences amongst local women – they were afraid to burn their hands, preferred not to cook outside at noon and in any case reserved their traditional ‘stove’ for evening cooking. The parabolic cookers in the car park are a testimony to such failures. Now, however, CIFRES is experimenting with the same technology for various forms of food processing, rather than the more culturally-sensitive activity of cooking.

The researcher in charge of solar thermal technologies at the Institute tells me that they have learned from these experiences. They now recognise the role that social scientists, anthropologists and – importantly – users can play in guiding the development of the technology, as well as making sure it’s used widely, and that it’s economically viable and socially useful. A team of researchers is now visiting villages twice a week over a period of months to discuss the various oven designs with women, and to experiment with local artisans on how they can be manufactured using local materials.

Clearly, this kind of research can help move towards more just and sustainable outcomes for the users of the technology. What other methods can be used to guide innovation through understanding social and cultural factors? The STEPS Centre is currently undertaking a project entitled “New Models of Technology Assessment for Development”, financially supported by the Rockefeller Foundation. We are investigating ways in which communities and other stakeholders can be brought into technology assessment processes, which have traditionally been limited to technical debates. Beyond involving an increased degree of participation (for example through citizen panels or juries), the “new models” are more global than previous approaches (a couple of examples are Worldwide Views on Global Warming and the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD)). As discussed in a report produced last year by Richard Sclove (2010), they may also be conducted by flexible networks of actors, and can take place virtually (rather than within formal, rigid institutions like the former US Office of Technology Assessment). Networked governance structures are advocated in the STEPS Centre’s New Manifesto, which suggests national and global bodies to evaluate innovation activities with the aim of improving their outcomes for sustainability and development. Could these networked technology assessments, building on lessons from previous initiatives, inform policies and strategies that drive innovation in better directions for communities in developing countries? If so, the solar cooking stoves of the future might be used for more than a few cups of tea.


Châtel, B.H. (1979) Technology Assessment and Developing Countries. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Vol. 13 203-211.

Sclove, R. (2010) Reinventing Technology Assessment: A 21st Century Model, Washington DC, Woodrow Wilson Centre for International Scholars


>> Innovation, Sustainability, Development: A New Manifesto

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Wednesday, 9 February 2011


By Adrian Smith, STEPS Centre member

This post is also available in Spanish at the Tecnologias Sociales blog.

Observing national innovation policies around the world, one is struck by some recurring technological themes. Again and again, governments (and partners in business) seek innovation systems capable of exploiting information and communication technologies, bio-technologies, and nano-technologies. Diverse countries persist in either keeping up with, or catching up with, an apparently universal techno-economic frontier. These dominant technologies constitute the means to economic growth. Each signifies the rise of powerful, apparently autonomous, knowledge bases, around which national institutions of innovation policy, including firms, research organisations, entrepreneurs, and citizens, must forge linkages in order to realise promising competitive capabilities.

Peering beyond the mainstream, however, the careful observer will notice an enduringly awkward demand in the political undercurrents of innovation policy. It is a demand that furnishes its own set of themes for technology. Appropriate technology, peoples’ technology, and social technology signify a different hope for knowledge production and its material application. In contrast to an approach adapting national policy circumstances to specialised fields of technology, these alternative technology approaches call for innovation policies rooted in the particular experiences and needs of local communities, as articulated by those communities. Institutions should forge links with knowledges relevant to the local situation, and empower people to have control over whatever technology development is helpful to them (wherever that technical knowledge comes from).

Of course, proponents of mainstream innovation policy rightly point to the employment and wealth creating benefits of their new technologies. But as emerging economies grow, and advocates seek in ICT-, bio- and nano- the technologies that will upgrade accumulation in their industries, so calls also go out for appropriate technologies that address the people left behind. Instead of waiting for growth to either trickle down or float people upwards, appropriate technology activists advocate innovations that help the marginalised more directly and more immediately. The consequences of distinctions between the innovation mainstream and the appropriate technology undercurrent also binds them together. It is no coincidence that the economic rise of India and Brazil, both of whom are committed to mainstream innovation policies, has been accompanied by social movements (and social programmes) for Peoples’ Technologies and Social Technologies respectively.

Both movements share family resemblances with the appropriate technology movement of the 1970s and 1980s. However, what makes this new generation so interesting, and perhaps less likely to repeat earlier mistakes, is the way they try to put socio-economic organisation and community empowerment at the heart of their projects. Peoples’ Technology Initiatives seek to organise the innovation of production and consumption systems across large numbers of villages, in contrast to the classic AT focus on village level technologies. The idea is that this larger scale can create niche spaces that hold the political economic pressures of global capital at bay, and can facilitate appropriate innovations for those village communities within their niches.

In Brazil, a social technologies network has expanded rapidly since its inception in 2005. It includes over 200 organisations, mostly in Brazil, but also in other Latin American countries and some in Africa (with support from the Brazilian government and corporate social responsibility funds of national banks and businesses). According to the Social Technologies Network (, the most important aspect to social technology is the community development process that carries the project. It is this social process that is at the heart of social technology: thereby avoiding earlier appropriate technology fixations on finding the right gadget whilst forgetting the process. On pragmatic grounds, the Social Technologies Network has developed databases and case studies of social technology artefacts, formed in part to demonstrate the extent of activity to funders and potential supporters. These are reminiscent of appropriate technology handbooks of old. But the real purpose behind social technologies is to nurture local innovation and empowerment processes from project to project, and from community to community.
The social technology goal is to empower people and seed wider social transformation through the capabilities acquired during a particular project, and that then drive initiative in subsequent projects in the locality. The partnerships that are formed are not only about making sure immediate solutions are locally appropriate. Additionally, learning to work with neighbours, university researchers, civil society organisations, funders, technology suppliers, politicians, and so on, is also intended to improve the ability of the community to organise and solve further problems, develop and exploit economic opportunities, and create the capacity to mobilise resources from others. Grassroots innovation capabilities are seen as requiring political and economic capabilities whose capacity increases through successions and networks of projects. Social technologies are neither artefacts nor standard products. Each project needs innovations to adapt to local contexts, and hence builds innovative capabilities. However, even this description misses the point made in the paragraphs above, which relates to the social technology deliberately requiring local innovative effort, since it is through this that solidarity will be built and communities empowered. As such, social technologies aspire to be a catalyst for social development in a broader and more mobilising sense than some learning-based approaches to project development (which were, in their turn, informed by appropriate technology critiques of an earlier generation of blueprint approaches to project development).

One example is the ‘cisterna’ initiative in Brazil, which is a rainwater harvesting system. It was developed by a building worker with help from university researchers. The university input was advice over materials and how to ensure the water was collected in ways that kept it in good quality. One might imagine a standard system design could easily be diffused as an affordable product; but it is the self-build aspect that constructs links in the community and initiates the social processes. This not only allows appropriate adaptation, but seeks to empower people too. The water subsequently ‘belongs’ to the self-builders, not to the utilities, nor is it dependent upon the patronage of a local politician. Perhaps it can inspire attempts to build further community resilience through future projects. That at least, is the claim: bringing experimentation and empowerment together. Of course, some people may not wish to engage in this way, and would prefer alternative development processes that provide access to ready-made water systems. Of course, the jobs and (redistributed) wealth arising in mainstream innovation policies might provide the resources for such top-down provision of (even better) water systems; which means a social technology approach has to prove its worth amongst diverse development pathways.

It can be difficult to persuade mainstream innovation policy that social technologies are a serious source of innovation and development for the country. Conventional innovation catch up measures prevail. Even though the science and technology minister sits on the 15 member board of the Social technologies Network, some within the social technology movement are saying it is difficult to open up mainstream innovation policy to allow more space for social technologies. Other ministries are more supportive, since the outcomes of social technologies meet their goals, but this limits social technologies to a social programme, rather than democratising science and technology by building up and building upon grassroots innovation capability.

What might a democratised innovation policy involve? It could begin to re-orientate some of the incentives that constrain scientific engagement and activity in social technology processes. Innovation policy for social technologies could work on a number of fronts. This would include training (action) researchers to realise the complementary value (and satisfaction) in working with local communities, rather than exclusively targeting research efforts towards publications, patents and other international criteria for scientific esteem. Innovation policy support might also convince commercial companies that social technology initiatives can inform their core business strategies in product and service development (such as marketable rainwater systems for other sectors in society). This means going well beyond an add-on corporate social responsibility programme. Innovation policy might also provide institutional support for intellectual property issues with social technologies. The whole ethos of social technologies is to make knowledge about the processes, techniques and products of social technologies freely available, but which nevertheless might need ‘protecting’ from enclosure by more predatory firms and their patenting activities. The Honey Bee Network for grassroots innovation in India is trying to do precisely these things, through a sometimes difficult involvement of activists in the National Innovation Foundation. Firmer innovation policy commitment to social technologies might even extend to feeding lessons back to higher-tech manufacturers, who develop designs more adaptable to social technology processes and enable poorer communities to have greater involvement in the development process. The challenge is for grassroots innovation niches to develop into a power base that could drive a larger proportion of the agendas, resources and institutions of mainstream science and technology. Networks, identities and interests are crucial here.

Such an encounter between grassroots innovation and mainstream innovation policy presents challenges to both sides. In order to win some of the mainstream over to the approaches of social technology, advocates will have to prove their worth on conventional terms of innovation policy; when ideally they wish to change those terms. The development of a broader power base for social technology could mean re-defining it in ways that lose sight of its more radical roots, and the radical routes to democratising technology. The experimentation and innovative results of social technologies need to impress more commercially-minded interests as well as community development advocates. Mainstream innovation policy actors meanwhile will have to let go of certain agendas and resources, in order to open up directions of experimentation to the needs of others. Meaningful dialogue requires the identification of common ground. It is unclear just how broad is this space currently for re-directing mainstream innovative efforts towards more direct sustainability and poverty reducing goals. Opening this space will prove unsettling for the current political economy of science and technology, and as such is very challenging.

Were the grassroots empowerment of social technology policies to lead to the shaping of much more plural and equitable science and technology agendas, then some of the aims for democratising technology that inspired early advocates of appropriate technology in the last century might eventually be fulfilled in this century. But it seems to me, at least, that new approaches to long-standing concerns reveal that some of the fundamentals remain the same.

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Tuesday, 8 February 2011


By Adrian Ely, Manifesto project convenor

The Science and Democracy World Forum is part of a growing movement responding to the challenges of sustainability and development. At this year’s event in Dakar, there are about 300 participants from 90 organisations across the world, with strong representation from the global South and a large number of African delegates.

The SDWF was started in Belem, Brazil in 2009, and this year came to Dakar in advance of the World Social Forum. Since 2009, numbers at the SDWF have doubled, while attendance at the WSF itself has declined – perhaps a sign of an increasing global (sub-)politics of science technology in the run-up to the Rio+20 summit next May.

The groups represented at the forum are hugely diverse – ranging from those working to improve science education at different levels, to organisations focussing on pro-poor technologies or ‘traditional knowledge’, to advocacy groups campaigning for the democratisation of ‘emerging technologies’. I presented the STEPS Centre project Innovation, Sustainability, Development: A New Manifesto, which talks to many of these concerns.

The issues discussed at the many workshops during the forum included some of those highlighted in the Multimedia Manifesto, in particular the important role of civil society in transforming innovation systems, the need for more strategic and inclusive governance of science, technology and innovation at national and international levels, and demands for increased accountability in policies and investments around science, technology and innovation.

I’m particularly encouraged by the solidarity shown across the broad spectrum of people here. There is a sense of a global movement, gathering momentum, that recognises the contributions of knowledge and innovation of all kinds – not only “scientific” – in addressing challenges of sustainability and development.


>> Science and Democracy World Forum
>> Innovation, Sustainability, Development: A New Manifesto

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Monday, 7 February 2011


By John Thompson and Erik Millstone, STEPS Centre Food and Agriculture Co-Convenors

A new report from the UK Government-commissioned study into Global Food and Farming Futures has called for urgent action to improve food security in the UK and around the world and to avert global hunger. The Foresight report on The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and Choices for Global Sustainability recognises that the current food system is unsustainable and will fail to end hunger unless radically redesigned.

At the launch in London last Tuesday, Professor Sir John Beddington, the Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government who initiated and oversaw the project, stressed that the two-year study “provides compelling evidence for governments to act now.” He declared “the era of cheap food is at an end”, with the real prices of key crops estimated to rise 50-100% during the next 40 years, if productivity growth no longer keeps pace with rising demand for food at a time of rapid environmental, social and technological change.

The Foresight report presents a dark picture of the future: one in which a global food crisis could be triggered by a surge in demand for food and energy by 50% and for fresh water by 30%, at a time when governments must also combat climate change. In his opening address, Prof Beddington characterised this convergence of drivers of change as a “perfect storm”, because the interaction of these complex, interlocking forces operating within the same time may create a crisis with global consequences. He pointed out that this chilling scenario is not inevitable, but it is plausible.

This crisis narrative has more than a tinge of neo-Malthusianism about it and has framed the Global Food and Farming Futures project since its inception. Fortunately, it has been toned down slightly in the new Foresight report. Yet it remains the central conceptual thread running through the entire document and featured in the launch presentations, which emphasised production and consumption-oriented responses to the triple challenges of chronic hunger, malnutrition and obesity over political economic solutions that would address underlying structural constraints and focus on distributional issues and the politics of food allocation more forcefully. Thus, a big part of the Foresight agenda calls for producing a great deal more food for a rapidly growing population with new and old technologies alike. As Prof Charles Godfray of Oxford University and Chair of the Lead Expert Group that guided the project argued in his talk, if food supplies are to increase sufficiently to prevent widespread starvation as the global population heads towards 9 billion by 2050, a new agricultural revolution is needed, one focused on promoting “Sustainable Intensification” – i.e. a method of enlisting all technologies, including genetic modification, to grow more food on the same land area – about 4.6bn hectares – without damaging the environment or requiring excessive inputs of fertiliser, water or energy.

To a degree, this idea of “Sustainable Intensification” is similar to the “Doubly Green Revolution” concept put forward by Gordon Conway well over a decade ago. However, both concepts, while positive in principle, are likely to be highly contentious and difficult to implement in practice. Like the first Green Revolution, such a transformation towards more intensive production will entail convincing millions of farmers to adopt a range of new, often-expensive and hard-to-obtain inputs and, as a result, will confront well-documented barriers to technological change in developing country agriculture. With its environmental overtones, it will also face a number of new obstacles, including a divergence between the interests of policy-makers and farmers; a policy context biased in favour of input-intensive agriculture; and the fact that many environmentally friendly technologies often have relatively high set-up costs. At least in the short run, institutional constraints and corporate biases in favour of commodity crops in which they can maintain control over intellectual property rights over staple food crops (global public goods) will limit the contribution of agricultural biotechnology to overcoming these obstacles. For these reasons, the first Green Revolution may be an overly optimistic model for a shift to a more intensive and sustainable production system.

The Foresight emphasis on “Sustainable Intensification” focuses rather narrowly on farm-level agricultural production and perhaps misses the wider debate about how to encourage appropriate innovation systems that respond to the diversity of needs of highly differentiated farming communities, and how, through such processes, to offer a wide range of technology choice through various combinations of routes – public and private, group-based and individual, deploying scientific and indigenous knowledge. There is a need to use a diversity of technologies and practices too and develop robust institutions, at both local level, but also critically at national and international levels, which see the challenge of technology innovation and development in a more rounded, comprehensive way.

But growing more food more intensively and sustainably may not be sufficient on its own. As Charles Godfray observed, action must also be taken on addressing waste across the entire food chain, as this will be important for any strategy to feed some eight billion people sustainably and equitably by 2030. The Foresight study reports that least 30% of food grown – and as much as 50% according to some estimates – is lost or wasted before or after it reaches consumers. Evidence collected for the study shows that a realistic target would be to halve the amount of food wasted by 2050, which would cut the amount of food required by a quarter of today’s production. This requires not only new food processing and storage techniques, but empowering consumers to become more food literate.

Professor Lawrence Haddad, Director of the Institute of Development Studies and another member of the Lead Expert Group, stressed the shocking fact that hunger is not a major political issue at the moment. But it should be, as an estimated 925 million people still lack enough to eat and another 1 billion suffer from 'hidden hunger' because essential nutrients are missing from their diets. He observed that the task is difficult because the food system is working for the majority of people, while those suffering hunger or at risk of malnutrition have least influence on decision-making. Conversely, a further one billion people are "substantially over-consuming", spawning a new public health epidemic involving the chronic diseases associated with obesity.

This focus on food politics is to be welcomed, but we would have liked to have seen it dealt with in a much more systematic and robust way in the report. As it stands, the discussion about the need to improve governance of the international food system remains rather underdeveloped and disappointingly short on specifics. Nevertheless, economic modelling for the Foresight study does show how perverse trade restrictions can amplify shocks and add to price volatility, as in the 2007-08 food price spike, which led to an extra 100 million people going hungry. Thus, the report calls for the need to reduce agricultural subsidies to farmers in rich (OECD) countries and dismantle trade barriers that disadvantage poor countries. It also recognises that smallholder farmers in poor countries need more public policy support, for example to increase investments in agricultural research and extension services. Finally, the report stresses that for the world to be free of hunger, there has to be physical, economic and social access to food. However, to tackle these multifaceted distributional issues, a more potent and consistent consensus on tackling the root causes of hunger is needed. To achieve this, the Foresight Future of Food and Farming study argues that strong levels of “political courage and leadership” will be required, along with coordinated action across a range of scales to carry this through, but how this would be done is not adequately addressed in the report.

Two key UK Government ministers who attended the launch - Caroline Spelman, the Secretary of State for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and Stephen O’Brien, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Department for International Development (DFID) - welcomed the report and said they would push for global action on food security.

Responding to the Foresight’s report’s recommendations, Ms Spelman noted, “This is a report that must not gather dust... We need a global, integrated approach to food security, one that looks beyond the food system to the inseparable goals of reducing poverty, tackling climate change and reducing biodiversity loss – and the UK Government is determined to show the international leadership needed to make that happen We can unlock an agricultural revolution in the developing world, which would benefit the poorest the most, simply by improving access to knowledge and technology, creating better access to markets and investing in infrastructure.”

She went on to say, “We must apply a food security lens to all issues we address. We must also align our policies across government and use the UK’s buying power to drive change. This global challenge requires a global response.”

Stephen O’Brien remarked, “Substantial actions are needed in three areas: (1) invest in sustainable production (2) reduce waste and (3) improve governance of the food system. All actors must be involved – public sector, private sector and civil society – and the role of agriculture must be given higher priority in international development. Land-based development is where we can have the biggest impact in reducing rural poverty in developing countries while producing enough food to provide for a growing global population needs a sustained focus on agriculture.”

Both ministers emphasised that as well as boosting economic growth, investment in agriculture means that poorest countries are able to feed their populations and are more resilient to shocks and stresses caused by changing global food prices and climate change.

Of course, while we wholeheartedly endorse this view and the call for positive and sustained action based on the key recommendations emerging from the Foresight Future of Food and Farming report, the proof of the pudding will, as always, be in the eating.


>> Foresight report and other supporting documents
>> STEPS Centre: Food and Agriculture
>>Biotechnology Research Archive: Poverty reduction and food security - impacts of GM crops

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