World Food Day: Call to make agricultural research more democratic intensifies

The United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Professor Olivier De Schutter, has backed citizens worldwide who are demanding a fundamental shift in food and agricultural research to make them more democratic and accountable to society.

De Schutter outlines his support in the foreword to a multimedia publication that the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), an independent, non-profit research institute based in London, UK, is set to launch today during the commemoration of World Food Day (16 October).

He writes in the multimedia e-book titled Democratising Agricultural Research for Food Sovereignty in West Africa, that “The democratisation of agricultural research is vital for those who seek to make the human right to adequate food a reality.”

Still in the foreword, the UN’s Special Rapporteur further applauds “the efforts that led to citizens’ juries in West Africa and farmers’ assessments of public research, for making such a significant contribution to the key values of participation and ownership that are at the heart of what democratisation means.”

The publication focuses on West Africa and includes video clips and audio files that feature the voices and concerns of food producers from across the region, says a statement issued by the IIED to mark World Food Day.

Specifically, the multimedia publication presents the findings of citizens’ juries — held in 2010 — at which farmers, pastoralists, food processors and consumers from Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Benin heard evidence from expert witnesses and made recommendations about the future of agricultural research and its governance.

The jurors called for direct involvement in the design and implementation of agricultural research. Among other things, they said research should focus on improving the productivity of local crop varieties and farming practices such as seed sharing instead of moving towards more intensive farming that relies on hybrid seeds and expensive external inputs.

The IIED statement informs that a related website (, which will also be launched today, 16 October, brings the concerns of the marginalised food producers from West Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and the Andean region of South America to a global audience.

The website shows how parallel processes to those underway in West Africa are revealing that small-scale farmers and pastoralists in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East also want more citizen controlled and inclusive forms of agricultural research.

Commenting, project leader Dr Michel Pimbert who is Team Leader of Food and Agriculture at IIED lamented; “Food and agriculture policy and research tend to ignore the values, needs, knowledge and concerns of the very people who provide the food we all eat — and often serve instead powerful commercial interests such as multinational seed and food retailing companies.”

The project leader stressed that “Agricultural research and policy must shift to focus on what farming communities and food consumers want and need,” while “Farmers and other citizens play a central role in defining strategic priorities for agricultural research and food policies.”

Michel Pimbert opined that “Achieving food sovereignty requires radically different knowledge than that on offer today in mainstream research institutes and policy think tanks,” adding, “Such a transformation depends on farmers and ‘ordinary’ citizens directly deciding what kind of agricultural research they want – for whom, how it should be done, where and by whom, and with what likely consequences”.

“This is why the democratic process described here is so important for food security, local livelihoods and human well being, and resilience to climate change,” he emphasised.

To Farah Karimi, executive director of Oxfam-Novib however, “The 2008 food price crisis was a wakeup call to the reality that despite advances in agricultural research, about a billion people remain hungry.”

He said, “In an ever more interdependent world, the global challenges of climate change, food and financial crises are putting pressure on food systems,” and that “It is therefore ever more important to re-examine the resilience of small-holder agriculture, and its great contribution, both to local and global food security.”

Oxfam Novib, has highly commended the work of Michel Pimbert and IIED, not only for the critical and well written analysis, but also for creatively bringing forward the voices of West African farmers in an innovative multi-media publication

The book highlights the issues of West African farmers on how they see agricultural research best serve their interest and the global public good of sustainable and equitable food systems.
The multimedia e-book is co-published by the International Institute for Environment and Development, the Coordination Nationale des Organisations Paysannes du Mali (CNOP), the Centre Djoliba, the Institut de Recherche et de Promotion des Alternatives en Développement (IRPAD), Kene Conseils, and the Union des Radios et Télévisions libres du Mali (URTEL).

The book and the process it describes were co-funded by the Government of The Netherlands, the Swiss Development Cooperation, Oxfam-Novib and The Christensen Fund.

By Edmund Smith-Asante

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