Joining food forces across continents

1 December, 2014

What agricultural problems do Africa and Europe have in common? Jenny Wilson examines an ambitious cross-continental collaborative project.

There’s a really exciting initiative that UKCDS (UK Collaborative on Development Sciences) has been involved in that aims to produce a step-change in the funding, and consequent research, available for EU-Africa scientific collaboration.

The EU-Africa High Level Policy Dialogue on Science, Technology and Innovation (EU-Africa HLPD) is an initiative that aims to align scientific strategic priorities between Europe and Africa, and implement joint activities.

I would empathise with anyone who felt that the current funding landscape could be described as piecemeal: implemented on a country-by-country basis. I could also agree that there has been a high volume of ‘developed countries’ funding programmes that scientists from ‘developing’ countries can get involved in. However, without undermining what these previous approaches have achieved, I think the EU-Africa HLPD initiative represents a new era for collaborative science, designed and funded by both continents.

As a potted history, the last ministerial HLPD meeting was held in Brussels in November 2013. At this meeting it was decided that there were shared priorities in the fields of (no pun intended!) sustainable agriculture, and food and nutrition security. It then came to the Bureau (the HLPD operational working group) to design and implement how the two continents could work together to advance.

Research roadmap

So where have we got to so far? A panel of 10 experts convened to pinpoint what the precise opportunities are within the overarching theme. They have sought out topics that would provide significant added value in terms of filling research gaps, and addressing issues at an intercontinental level in the sub-themes of:

– Sustainable intensification: developing more efficient crops that produce more with the same amount of inputs.
– Agriculture and food systems for nutrition: how can the foods we eat be healthier and meet everyone’s nutritional needs as seen in programmes like the golden rice project.
– Expansion and improvement of agricultural markets and trade: what financial practices can be inclusive, fair and beneficial for everyone.

Underpinning these, there would be the cross-cutting themes of innovation, capacity strengthening and partnership and governance adaptation.

The project roadmap that details the precise challenges will be going out for consultation in January to stakeholders across the agricultural value chain from farm to fork. Included in the roadmap are suggestions of the types of funding mechanisms that might be able to facilitate cross-continental collaborative working, such as a model comparable to the ERAfrica programme.

Problems to solve

Personally, I’ve learnt a lot from the process. For instance, some may wonder how nutrition could be a topic of mutual interest to both continents, but as our experts pointed out, poor nutrition can come in the form of under and over nutrition, resulting in a spectrum of conditions from kwashiorkor to obesity.

I also hadn’t realised that Africa is supposedly home to 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land. It does raise a question of just because it can be cultivated, should it be? Sustainable intensification of land already in use presents an enticing challenge in giving farmers a greater range of options for how to produce more.

Trade wasn’t something that sprung to my mind when I thought of the headline title, but it’s something that I’ve grown to appreciate as an essential component. Certainly, as the world’s economies become increasingly intertwined and interdependent, there will be a need to rethink how basic commodities are exchanged. After all, stable, affordable food prices are a key component of making agriculture sustainable and secure.

We’re now working towards September 2015 when the ministerial HPLD will meet again in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to agree the details. From there I hope it’ll be an exciting flurry of new collaborative research, another step along the road to a bright future of excellent science partnerships between Africa and Europe.

This blog also appears on the Global Food Security website.

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