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Research for sustainable world food production

Technological solutions for sustainable agriculture alone are not enough. They must also be politically feasible. The communication of scientific findings and their implementation is an important concern of the "Third Ways of Feeding the World" graduate programme.

Market in Senegal
© Institut für Agrarökonomie, Uni Kiel

Market activities in the outskirts of Dakar, Senegal. The west-African country is a partner in the project. Well-planned investments in agriculture are required to secure the growing population’s supply of food.

Professor Christian Henning, Dean of the Faculty of Agricultural and Nutritional Sciences, describes the challenges future agriculture is faced with as a "fundamental dilemma". On the one hand, sustainable land use is the order of the day to conserve natural resources, preserve biodiversity and slow down climate change. On the other hand, however, efficient production processes are needed to produce sufficient food for the growing global population. It is now of paramount importance to find reasonable trade-offs between the two poles of organic versus intensive farming. The "Third Ways of Feeding the World" research programme takes an interdisciplinary approach to investigating such compromise solutions. The project is carried out by Agricultural Sciences (Grass and Forage Science / Organic Agriculture, chaired by Professor Friedhelm Taube), Agricultural Economics (Department of Agricultural Policy, chaired by Professor Christian Henning) and Philosophy (Department of Environmental Philosophy and Ethics, chaired by Professor Konrad Ott). Project partner and sponsor is the evangelische Studienwerk e.V. Villigst. Within this research area, a total of 20 PhD projects are supported, now and in future.

The term ‘Third Ways’ indicates that there will be no single solution that fits all situations and regions of the world. At the end of the day, this is always a matter of weighing up individual advantages and disadvantages, Henning speaks of trade-offs, which also need to include ethical judgements. "We will not be able to save every beetle, every tree and every human being. Even if we manage to find good technological solutions, these problems will remain." The programme therefore also includes the development of an ethical evaluation framework that facilitates the choice between different strategies.

From a purely technological vantage point, the question arises of how the production of good food can be maximised at the lowest possible ecological cost. And solutions to this end in Europe will differ from those in Africa. Henning: "We are first interested in the technological options. This includes, for example, how the ways food is produced can be changed in order to avoid the negative impact on environmental resources, while at the same time increasing the yield." According to Henning, the researchers have already developed some good strategies here. They found out, for example, that high yields can be achieved in dairy farming while maintaining a strong CO2 balance and keeping nutrient output at a low level. "But technological solutions alone are not enough," the professor for agricultural policy emphasised. "They must also be politically viable." The question is how to communicate existing scientific findings to society. A sustainable use of resources in particular, whether on land or at sea, cannot be guaranteed by market mechanisms alone. We have to create a political environment in which economic operators have an incentive to implement sustainable technologies."

As long as people believe that there is no link between CO2 emissions and global warming, consistent climate policies will not be the result of actual socio-political processes.

Christian Henning

In this context, Computational Political Economy Models are an important tool. These ecological-economic composite models are directly integrated with mathematical policy models and thus able to map economic policy decisions. On the one hand, these models can be used to simulate what would happen in reality if certain policy initiatives, like for example the regulation of CO2 emissions or investments in education or infrastructure, were implemented. On the other hand, these models can be used to map the effects of such policies expected by citizens and other stakeholders.

Laypeople often have political beliefs that are not in line with scientific realities. The idea that organic farming is good for everything is a typical example of such political belief, according to Christian Henning. "If I’m elected as a political leader by people who believe that organic farming is the solution to all problems and even solves the problems of developing countries, then if I want to be re-elected, I will have to offer this policy." This leads to policy failures, as actual policy decisions are determined by political beliefs.

"As long as people believe that there is no link between CO2 emissions and global warming, consistent climate policies will not be the result of actual socio-political processes." Since citizens, as scientific laypeople, often have highly distorted political beliefs, this can paradoxically lead to even greater policy failures in more functional democracies where policies reflect the will of the electorate to a greater degree.

The integration of scientific findings is an important prerequisite to avoid fundamental policy failure, especially in well-functioning democracies. Henning: "The objective is to develop innovative trans-disciplinary policy processes that enable interactive learning between science and society." Such processes are developed and tested in the graduate school in interactive stakeholder workshops and by means of policy experiments.

Author: Kerstin Nees

More information: www.feeding-the-world.de