Tag Archives: Royal Society

Africa must take the lead in addressing global health challenges

Credit: ILRI/Niels Teufel, Tanzania, 2014

The new Director General of the World Health Organisation, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, is a former minister of health in Ethiopia. Africa – at last – is now at the centre of global health policy. This is good news, as persistent ill-health and threats of disease emergence remain, and a different approach to the standard western solutions is required. This must be centred on a One Health approach – where human, veterinary and ecosystem health are seen together. This will require new approaches to research, policy and practice, and must be a major priority for WHO and member states.

But realising these ideals is easier said than done. What might a One Health approach look like for Africa? Today a new Special Issue of the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions (Biology) journal is published. Across 12 papers, this offers some clues. The issue is called – One Health for a Changing World: Zoonoses, Ecosystems and Human Well-being, and all articles are available, free online here. You can also download individual articles from the links below.

These papers mostly emerged from a long-term interdisciplinary collaboration under the Dynamic Drivers of Disease in Africa research programme, hosted by the ESRC STEPS Centre. This involved work in Ghana, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe, looking at different zoonotic diseases (see earlier coverage on this blog on work on trypanosomiasis in Zimbabwe, here and here).

Through a combination of detailed fieldwork and broader integrative modelling, we aimed to ask how diseases emerge, who they affect, and what to do about them, taking a One Health approach as the starting point. The papers highlight the importance of taking local knowledge of diseases seriously, understanding how both local ecological and social factors generating disease risk and affect poverty and wellbeing, but also how long-term vulnerabilities are generated by politics and changing environments. The papers highlight the importance of modelling as a route to thinking about complex dynamics over time and space, but emphasise the need to link modelling approaches, generating a conversation between modelling approaches. This may involve ‘constructive conflict’ at the centre of a negotiation around how to respond, and will require a rethinking of policy approaches, as well as organisational mandates.

Providing an effective platform for a One Health response to complex and dynamic disease challenges must be a priority for Africa – and the new African DG of the WHO. Hopefully this Special Issue can provide some important pointers, as well as highlighting the real challenges of realising interdisciplinary, cross-sectoral engagement in a changing world.

Here are the details of the papers:

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland



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Sustainable intensification: a new buzzword to feed the world?

The term ‘sustainable intensification(SI) has entered academic and policy discourse in recent years, including in debates about what to do about agriculture in Zimbabwe. I have been intrigued for some while to find out what it actually means. Is this yet another contradictory hyphenation of two words for political ends, or does it have some substance? Who is driving this debate, and what does it mean for Africa?

A flurry of publications have been produced in the past year or two that use the term, and they provide a good route to finding out a bit more. A high profile article in Science from 2013 offered a definition of SI: “to increase food production from existing farmland in ways that place far less pressure on the environment and that do not undermine our capacity to continue producing food in the future”. The major Montpellier Panel report offer a similar one, defining SI as “producing more outputs with more efficient use of all inputs on a durable basis, while reducing environmental damage and building resilience, natural capital and the flow of environmental services”. Other similar formulations appear in a recent Royal Society collection of papers. No one could disagree with these it seems. Is SI then just what we used to call sustainable agriculture, or is there something more to it?

To answer this, we have to probe a bit further and ask what analytical frameworks underpin the concept and its definition, and what policy narratives flow from it? The Science article, and the Oxford Martin School report which preceded it, situate the challenge in terms of the familiar argument about resource scarcity – of land, water, and resources – in relation to a growing population of 9 billion needing to be fed. This justifies a ‘crisis narrative’ argument that pushes towards a productivist response: more food is needed on less land with less water, requiring new technologies to deliver it.

The challenge is often couched in the well-used metaphor of the ‘perfect storm’, memorably used by the former Chief Scientist in the UK to argue for a global response to impending food shortages, in the build up to the oft-cited 2011 UK Foresight report. In recent years a new version of this narrative, with a new word, has emerged. This is now portrayed as the challenge of ‘the nexus’, where multiple resource constraints come together requiring a particular style of (usually) technical, top-down response.

While no one would argue against improving resource use efficiency and boosting production in sustainable ways, it is the link between this technical challenge and the wider framing of the problem and solution where issues arise. These have been outlined in a recent paper on land issues that I co-authored, but the same arguments could be applied to other resources, and the challenges of agriculture in Africa more generally.

  •  First, we must be careful when proclaiming generic resource scarcity as the driving force for action. My scarcity may be someone else’s surplus: scarcities are always relative, and resource access and distribution is a crucial issue that is not addressed by this narrative.
  •  Second, because scarcities are constructed in policy arenas, there is a political dimension that must be acknowledged. So-called ‘global’ scarcities are very often the consequence of high unequal power relations, skewed consumption patterns and poor resource governance.
  •  Third, a solely technical response through increasing production or efficiency in ways that conserve the environment – often laden with yet more jargon such as ‘climate-smart agriculture’ or ‘conservation agriculture’ – ignores the social and political choices around technology and its direction. A crisis narrative that forces a particular trajectory may restrict debate about alternative choices, and debates about pros, cons, risks and rewards. A good case in point is the promotion of GM crops by certain large corporations in terms of ‘sustainable intensification’ (see last week’s blog).

The advocates of SI are quick to point out that their approach does not promote any particular technology over another. Various declarations reiterate this, and a recent Royal Society publication offers a huge array of different technological solutions under the SI banner. The Montpellier Panel, a group of well-known agriculture experts, are even more explicit. They point out the potential for capture of the term and its politicisation:

“the term “Sustainable Intensification” –– has come to take on a highly charged and politicised meaning, becoming synonymous with big, industrial agriculture. As we strive to feed a population expected to reach nine billion by 2050 sustainably, the risk is that we may lose sight of the term’s scientific value and its potential relevance to all types of agricultural systems, including for smallholder farmers in Africa”

Equally, the Oxford report argues for the need to “deepen and extend understanding of systems interactions”, to “consider and define what specific goals societies wish agricultural production to achieve” and to “develop metrics that will enable societies to measure progress in achieving them”. All good stuff, resonant with long running debates about sustainable agriculture, and discussions on the politics and direction of innovation outlined in the STEPS New Manifesto on innovation, sustainability and development.

Yet in all this warm-sounding rhetoric there is an absence of social and political analysis that undermines the approach. In the late 1980s I joined the recently formed ‘Sustainable Agriculture Group’ at the International Institute of Environment and Development, together with Gordon Conway and Jules Pretty. Our approach to agricultural sustainability was in many ways strikingly similar to the current debate about SI. But with one important difference: people and their livelihoods were central. Our work evolved in concert with debates about ‘sustainable livelihoods’ and participatory approaches to development, and had as a result a very different flavour.

Looking at the long lists of authors of papers and reports on SI there are, beyond a scattering of economists, vanishingly few social scientists involved. This is telling, and reflective of the sometimes naïve perspectives portrayed, about the political and social contexts of these debates. Frequently, a techno-economic determinism dominates, driven of course by a passion and commitment to addressing major challenges, but without the necessary social and policy analysis to make it happen, and avoid it being captured.

Take the diagrammatic representations of the approach by the Montpellier Panel. Here ‘farmers’ and ‘communities’ are put at the centre, but all the action happens around them, seemingly disconnected. Agrodealers represent the market, but the process of sustainable intensification seems to be driven by a technical process. It is all well and good arguing that societal goals are defined, as the Oxford report does, but how can this happen, through what political process? In the terms of the New Manifesto, how are innovation directions set, how are the diversity of options defined, and how are the costs and benefits distributed? These are issues that seem not to be on the table, or at least not in ways that are central.

If SI is to have any meaning beyond a seemingly uncontroversial, hyphenated buzzword, then these are the questions that must be put centre stage. For SI to be anything more than a rather odd collection of technical solutions, then questions of socio-technical choice and direction must be put at the forefront. This means having a political debate, and bringing in people more centrally, something that may jar with the rather bland techno-economic prescriptions offered to date.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland



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GM crops: continuing controversy

In 2002, the international press was full of headlines such as ‘Starving Zimbabwe Shuns GM Maize’. This was repeated again in 2010. The context was the refusal to import whole-grain GM maize from South Africa, as regulatory approval had not been granted, and there were fears that the food aid grain would be planted when GM crops had not been approved for release by the national regulatory authorities. The 2002 episode in particular caused a massive furore, with the governments of Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique cast as villains, at odds with the needs of their people.

The debate has re-emerged recently with calls from a number of quarters, including the CZI and CFU, for Zimbabwe to accept the inevitable and formally approve the planting of GM crops. Of course GM crops, and especially maize, are planted widely as so much maize grain has been imported through informal routes from South Africa in recent years. An official acceptance of GM crops would, it is argued, increase productivity, reduce food aid dependence and tackle poverty. GM for some is the silver tech bullet that Zimbabwe urgently needs.

The Zimbabwe debate, not surprisingly, almost exactly replicates the international discussion that has heated up recently too. In the UK a group of science advisors to the Prime Minister have recently reported their view that the UK should lift its moratorium. The UK Chief Scientist, Sir Mark Walport, argued in his covering letter that ‘people will go unfed’ if such a response was not forthcoming. Some extreme press coverage, including in the normally restrained Sunday broadsheet, the Observer, has backed the advisors, with claims that such a move would help solve the global food crisis and world poverty. A similar narrative is being pushed by some commentators in a debate this week convened by SciDev.net.

Most sensible scientists would not go so far. Indeed these days much of the advocacy of GM crops is presented in terms of seemingly balanced positions on technology choices. The same lead author of the recent advisers’ report also led an inquiry for the Royal Society on ‘biological science-based technologies’ for crop production. Professor Sir David Baulcombe is a respected plant scientist from Cambridge, but also an ardent advocate of GM solutions. Yet the position of his 2009 Royal Society report seems at face value completely balanced: GM is only one part of a wider array of technologies, both genetic and agroecological:

Over the next 40 years, biological science-based technologies and approaches have the potential to improve food crop production in a sustainable way. Some of these technologies build on existing knowledge and technologies, while others are completely radical approaches which will require a great deal of further research. Genetic improvements to crops can occur through breeding or GM to introduce a range of desirable traits. Improvements to crop management and agricultural practice can also address the constraints identified….. There are potential synergies between genetic and agroecological approaches. Different approaches will be needed for different regions and circumstances. There is a need to balance investment in radical new approaches that may have major consequences on productivity with investment in approaches which deliver modest improvements on a shorter timescale.

What could be wrong with that? The strapline is ‘reaping the benefits’ from science-based ‘sustainable intensification’. Seemingly all good things – although see next week’s blog on some of the hidden politics of the ‘sustainable intensification’ buzzword. In his more recent report, Baulcombe is less circumspect: GM is most definitely central to the answer. Five years on there is a greater determination it seems to change the policy landscape, and deal with what they term ‘dysfunctional’ regulation imposed by the EU. Also the composition of the advisory group is distinctively different with strong industry links: no troublesome agroecologists amongst their number this time.

As someone who has tracked this debate now over 15 years, and studied the role of GM crops and the politics of regulation in India, Africa and the UK, it is interesting to note the changing patterns of discourse. Today the advocacy for new technologies to solve global food problems is particularly shrill. Yet where is the evidence for such approaches being ‘pro-poor’ and enhancing ‘food security’? Dominic Glover did a very detailed analysis of the available data, and found very little in the way of hard evidence to support the claims made. Others have provided similar assessments. Yes, GM pest-resistant cotton has been a success, but has it always benefited the poor and improved food security? Probably not.

This is of course no reason to reject a technology as part a mix, but the near obsession with GM solutions can act to crowd out alternatives. As explained by Gaëtan Vanloqueren and Philippe Baret in an excellent paper, agricultural innovation processes can become locked in to particular trajectory: through R and D funding flows, the need to recoup investment costs through intellectual property sales and via the biases and motivations of particular scientists’ professional careers. The GM hype that reached its apogee in the early 2000s has created such a dynamic, and some companies, most notably the US multinational Monsanto, have hooked their fortunes on GM technologies. As funders of much so-called public research, the big companies reinforce this too. This dynamic is unhealthy, and means that alternatives are not identified, funded and developed.

The counter to this is that the biotech and genomics revolution is throwing up all sorts of new possibilities. Certainly this is a frontier area of bioscience, and there are multiple exciting avenues being pursued. Indeed, many are not hooked into the transgenic GM promise at all, but more based on innovative applications of bioinformatics and genomics. The GM lobby for most of the past 15 years has promised an exciting ‘pipeline’ of new products that will solve inter alia constraints of drought, nutrients, aluminium toxicity and much more besides. Indeed, Baulcombe and colleagues provide a familiar list in their report. But while some may be forthcoming, others have been long promised. Unfortunately the hype fuels expectations, garners venture capital as well as public funding, and pushes R and D in ever narrower directions.

Despite the promises, GM science has yet to deliver anything approaching an effective product for tackling drought for example. Yet biotechnology and marker assisted selection has done wonders in improving drought tolerance in maize in Africa. This research, led by the CGIAR Centres CIMMYT and IITA, was pioneered in Zimbabwe, and has resulted in a suite of new varieties that have transformed farmers’ possibilities in maize farming. This work has used high-end biotech science, but it has not relied on proprietary technologies and has been publicly-funded. The result is a widespread use of drought tolerant maize, with traits embedded in well-adapted background genetics. In many ways this approach is far more sophisticated than the rather brutal technique of transgenics, where a gene (or a stack of them), usually owned by a company, is inserted into a variety that the company also owns. Sometimes, while the transgene may be effective, the background variety may be hopeless, and the net effect is negative (as was the case in the early years of Monsanto’s Bt cotton in India).

So should Zimbabwe hurriedly embrace GM crops? It’s a difficult question to answer generically. It depends on the trait, the crop, the intellectual property arrangements, the costs and risks relative to the benefits and the alternatives that exist. This is why a precautionary policy stance, backed by a solid regulatory framework, is essential, as I argued in a paper with James Keeley over a decade ago. This has been the position of the Zimbabwe government since the 1990s, and there doesn’t seem any reason to change now, despite the clamour.

Much of the simplistic advocacy of GM crops as the tech solution to ‘feed the world’, as illustrated by the recent flurry of reports and media articles in the UK, fails to take account of the political and social contexts in which such technologies (if they existed – remember most useful ones are ‘in the pipeline’) are used. It really does matter who owns, controls and oversees access. And when one technological track is favoured over others, then a whole raft of much more suitable and sustainable alternatives may be missed.

Contrary to the Observer’s claim that ‘there is no choice’, there certainly is, and the multiple choices available need to be thoroughly debated, including by those who are the users of technologies (as occurred in an interesting engagement on Zimbabwe’s food and farming futures in the early 2000s). We should always avoid being pushed in a singular direction by those who are (mis)using the authority of science, without a proper and open debate.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland





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