Knowledge for better food systems

Peter Newton and Lini Wollenberg CCAFS

November 2012

Peter Newton is a postdoctoral research fellow based at the University of Michigan (UM). He is working with the CGIAR research program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) together with Lini Wollenberg, CCAFS Pro Poor Climate Change Mitigation Theme Leader.

Peter, can you describe the work and project you are currently involved in?

Peter: I am currently collaborating with Lini Wollenberg and Arun Agrawal (Professor in the School of Natural Resources and Environment at UM) on a project that studies the governance structures involved in addressing the challenge of achieving environmental, economic and social goals on tropical forest and agricultural landscapes. We’re working with partners across the tropics to characterize and evaluate the range of emerging, innovative interventions that aim to influence how and where commodity agriculture takes place.  We want to know how these interventions can best reduce impacts on the climate while also enhancing food security and the environment.  The interventions include institutional arrangements and policies, incentives and disincentives, and information and technology across the food supply chain. Our partners include groups from the market sector, government and civil society (including NGOs and researchers). . Our scope is global, but we are focusing particularly on Brazil (on the cattle and soy industries), Indonesia (palm oil) and West Africa (cocoa). We’re interested in characterizing interventions that target different commodities in different countries and contexts. Our work aims to create a common framework to compare these interventions, to assess their predicted or actual impacts, and to enable lesson-learning between cases.

What do you see as the big questions for the food climate research community at the moment?

Peter: How to ensure food security for a global population that is projected to reach 9 billion people by 2050, while promoting sustainable environmental and social outcomes. In particular, while minimizing greenhouse gas emissions both from land-use change (especially deforestation) and from the production process.

Lini: As we seek to meet food security needs, we need answers about how to lower emissions in food systems of the future.  How can agriculture contribute to low emissions development without compromising food security?  What are the consequences for the climate if we do not reduce emissions in agriculture and land use change? Will it be enough to reduce the relative emissions intensity of food and the need for “high emissions” products, or will absolute (total) emissions also need to be reduced to meet climate targets? 
How can we then transform agriculture to use land and inputs more efficiently, recognizing that natural resources are already scarce or degraded in many places and will need to be used sustainably? And most difficult of all, how can we create incentives for a lower emissions food system so that we achieve a wide impact around the globe?  Changing the practices of a few hundred or even thousand farmers and others in the food system will not make the necessary impact. We will need to shift the behavior of millions of people, but to do so in ways that are sensitive to local needs and contexts.

Peter: Regarding intensification and up-scaling, it is important to look at the commonalities of research findings in different areas, across sectors and regions and use this to draw conclusions that can be used for scaling up. That is one idea behind this research as we try to analyze and characterize a range of interventions related to commodity agriculture.

What are the big questions you feel you are seeking to answer at the moment?

Peter: Under what conditions and through what strategies is it possible to achieve sustainable agriculture, reduce climate impacts and improve local livelihoods at the interface of agricultural and forest landscapes in the tropics? Many people have given attention to the technical aspects of “sparing land” through agricultural intensification that allows more food to be produced from fewer hectares.  We think it is also important—and perhaps more challenging-- to develop the institutional arrangements that can reduce the expansion of agriculture into carbon rich landscapes and encourage low emissions agriculture.  We want to identify generalizable lessons from the experience of diverse interventions to shape future commodity agriculture systems in tropical forest landscapes. 

How would you describe CCAFS’s approach to tackling the deforestation/food security problem? Does it differ from the approaches of other actors in this field?

Lini: CCAFS is taking a landscape perspective and trying to understand how to better link institutions across forestry and agriculture, as well as link institutions though the food supply chain. Governance of the market can help balance different social objectives like climate change and economic development.  Our project aims to identify innovative approaches to market governance, and to test some ideas about how incentives, institutions and information work to provide that governance.  For example, trying to target interventions as close to the producer and land user as possible, or using multiple interventions that provide checks and balances.

Although it has perhaps not reached a full potential the REDD+ initiative is important because it will need to address agriculture as a driver of deforestation, and in doing so, could support sustainable agricultural development at both the local and policy levels. Political will to relocate or redirect some agricultural investments may be required.

Regarding REDD+, what are the benefits and difficulties of working with this particular deforestation initiative? How does it (or should it) address the linkage between deforestation and food security?

Peter: REDD+ has principally focused on forest landscapes with relatively few attempts to link to agricultural landscapes. The opportunity costs to overcome in areas where commodity agricultural expansion is driving deforestation are often high, but so are the potential gains in reduced greenhouse gas emissions. I believe REDD+ needs to more directly address agriculture, as the key driver of deforestation, in order to achieve significant emissions reductions.

What are the most important principles and processes one needs to understand in order to effectively work with the linkage between deforestation and food security?

1. That pressure on forests will grow as a consequence of: a) a projected 70% increase in aggregate food demand by 2050, and b) an increase in per capita demand for foods with a high negative impact on deforestation (e.g. beef, soy (for cattle feed), and palm oil)
2. That innovative policies, incentives, technology and information can improve agricultural efficiency by altering production, consumption, and wastage in the supply chain.

Would you like to highlight any “success-stories”, are there any common denominators?

Peter: A key aim of our current research is to do precisely this! When we’re further down the line, we’ll be better positioned to answer this question. One complication is that many interventions are very new, and there is obviously a lag between the implementation of any policy or action and the realization of any impacts. Another difficulty is that of attribution. Making direct causal linkages between an action and an outcome in a complex context is difficult. From our experiences so far there is some evidence that interventions may be more successful if they: a) include the full diversity of stakeholder groups involved in a given system and b) directly aim to influence the commodity supply chain, since income and sales are significant motivators to more rapid change.

Regarding collaborations, is there a lack of expertise or knowledge sharing in the research community on any particular issue or area that may hinder initiatives from having a real impact? What type of collaboration with others in this field would you especially welcome?

Peter: A large number of people work broadly within the field of deforestation, agriculture, REDD+ and governance. The combination of approaches and scales is really helping to build a better understanding of needs and responses.

One limitation exists in the methods for evaluating the impacts of interventions. In many cases, we don’t have very good indicators for evaluating the effectiveness of programs, and so the process of learning from experience is constrained.

Are there a lot of multidisciplinary methods for working with these issues or should/could this be improved? 

Peter: This is an inherently interdisciplinary problem that spans the natural and social  sciences, as well as economics and politics. Specialist disciplines and new technologies can improve our ability to understand the nature and scale of the problem but our belief is that institutional change is usually needed to effect change on the ground.


For more info

CGIAR research program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security
International Forestry Resources and Institutions (IFRI)


Lini Wollenberg, PhD, CCAFS Theme Leader, Pro-Poor Climate Change Mitigation
University of Vermont
Tel:   +1.802.656.9891/985.5381


Dr Peter Newton, Postdoctoral research fellow
School of Natural Resources and Environment
University of Michigan
Tel: +1 734-709-3734