Despite growing consensus over the diagnosis that climate change, food security and rural development are the main challenges that should drive agricultural research, "strong disagreements exist concerning solutions," notes the study, presented at a conference on the role of EU research in sustainable development on 27 May.
Disagreements exist both at political and scientific level regarding the role of public sector and market liberalisation in solving social problems, as well as regarding the role of technology and innovation in solving agri-environmental issues. Other dilemmas include deciding whether sustainability or competitiveness should come first, determining the role of farmers and consumers in deciding the way forward, and over the role of intellectual property rights (IPR) in agri-innovation.
The main cross-cutting concerns that link the present food, energy, climate and financial crises are four-fold, the conference heard.
The first is the need to reduce the vulnerability of rural systems and increase resilience by prioritising diversity over specialisation, resistance over artificial elimination of sources of stress and prevention rather than cure.
Secondly, as dominant agri-food paradigms "only measure success and competitiveness in terms of capacity to grow economies" and do not consider "ecological footprints or social impacts" of that growth, it is necessary to identify limits to growth. This can be done by considering technical, social and organisational innovation together, and conducting transdisciplinary research.
Third, the study underlines agriculture's potential for both mitigation of and adaptation to climate change, thanks to its capacity to transform carbon into biomass and maintain biodiversity. It calls for further examination of the concept of 'ecosystem services' as a link between public goods and sustainable agriculture.
Finally, the study highlights the need for new social and institutional arrangements via a new distribution of roles between state, markets and civil society regarding access to and distribution of food, land, knowledge and decision-making. "This is another key issue for building the resilience of agri-food systems. Climate change and environmental crises require a new state-market-citizen pattern of interaction," argues the report.
As for different drivers of agricultural research, Gianluca Brunori, who chaired the report team, noted that policy drivers of agricultural research "are not always taken into account". Such drivers include the Kyoto Protocol for lowering global greenhouse gas emissions, the EU's target of sourcing 10% of fuel from biofuel by 2020, and the Union's sustainable consumption and production policies.
Social drivers, like lifestyles, consumption trends, demographic change and urban and rural development are also "sometimes neglected" or not clearly identified, Brunori added.
Impact of the food retail sector
Research must also widen the list of economic drivers of agriculture and go beyond considering only prices, trade and subsidies, Brunori said. The distribution of power in the agri-food chain and the growing concentration of production need to be addressed as well, he added.
Indeed, the study notes that "the structure of the food system has changed with the growing power of international corporations". It points to a particularly fast-growing dominance of food retailers, whose sales increased by some 40% between 2004 and 2006, compared to 13% for food processors and traders and 8% for the agricultural input industry.
"Food retailers have been able to anchor producers, processors and distributors into global commodity chains under their command through procurement and by means of safety and quality standards set by the private sector," reads the report.