Researchers suggest new framework for priority-setting in climate-smart agriculture research

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Planning climate-smart agriculture (CSA) practices in Nicaragua. A new paper outlines a conceptual framework for prioritizing different CSA research activities, to assist in making decisions about the allocation of resources. Photo: A. Popescu (CCAFS)
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Oct 22, 2018


Philip Thornton (CCAFS)

New paper proposes six components for prioritizing agricultural research investments.

While there is a growing literature on climate-smart agriculture (CSA) prioritization, with a wide array of different approaches and methods, we currently lack a flexible framework for assessing and comparing different interventions and investments that address the key elements of CSA.

In a new research paper, we outline a conceptual framework for prioritizing different CSA research activities, to assist in making decisions about the allocation of research and implementation resources.

A workshop-based participatory process involving the authors of the paper* was used to identify six elements in the framework:

1. Identify system entry points and impact pathways

What is the problem to be addressed?

2. Define the spatial and temporal scales of the research

Where and in what timeframe will the problem be addressed?

3. Which research questions, how they will be addressed

How likely is it that the research can address the problem?

4. Estimate production, adaptation, mitigation, research impact

What effects may the research have on the climate-smart agriculture pillars?

5. Estimate other environmental and social impacts

What other effects may the research have?

6. What is needed to go from research output to impact

How can research impact be facilitated/enabled?

These elements need to be taken into account in prioritizing CSA research at different spatial and temporal scales, along with the major questions to be addressed for each element.

How can the framework be used?

Application of the framework outlined above can assist in setting priorities by ranking a range of alternatives based on their potential impact as well as their effects on the pillars of CSA. It can help the user think about the context-specific impacts of different interventions, in relation to each intervention’s current stage of development or implementation and a range of metrics that evaluate the potential contribution of the intervention to the CSA pillars and other metrics related to environmental and social impacts beyond the farm gate. It attempts to build in elements of monitoring, evaluation and learning through the use of theory of change to postulate a specific impact pathway for each intervention at the start of the research. During the process, lessons can then be learned about both success and failure, and adjustments made if appropriate.

The framework encourages the user to consider what the explicit enablers of uptake may be, in relation to the returns on investment and the sequence of interventions and scaling pathways that may be needed. Because research activities are described in relation to temporal and spatial scales, it should be able to contribute to program design and evaluation where sequences of activities are required (i.e., specific activities may be dependent on the success of other activities before they can be developed or deployed at scale).

Challenges of CSA prioritization

CSA presents special challenges to priority-setting. For example:

  • What is "climate-smart" in relation to practices, technologies, and policies is heavily influenced by local context. 
  • Climate-smartness needs to be assessed in relation to three dimensions (productivity, adaptation and mitigation). Priority setting thus needs to address these different dimensions using what may be multiple metrics, so that resulting trade-offs and synergies can be evaluated.
  • The impact pathways for CSA interventions can span a broad range of decision-makers, from individual farmers and value-chain participants to regional and national governments and organizations, and ultimately to the full set of international actors engaged in negotiating collective action to combat climate change. The challenge here is dealing with the multiple and sometimes competing objectives of all the relevant stakeholders.

Agricultural research for development needs to step up to help meet the Sustainable Development Goals associated with food production, human nutrition, climate change and environmental protection in a world with 9.7 billion people by 2050. The researchers emphasize that a key part of addressing this challenge will revolve around effective priority setting that can provide information to help guide best-bet technology, policy and investment action that leads to desired, long-term development outcomes while meeting local, immediate needs for food security.

A mix of strategies and activities across space and time scales can help address these immediate needs as well as build enabling conditions that can help farmers, policymakers and other stakeholders respond to new challenges. 

Download the paper: A framework for priority-setting in climate-smart agriculture research

*The paper's authors are:

  1. Philip K Thornton, CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)
  2. Anthony Whitbread, International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT)
  3. Tobias Baedeker, The World Bank
  4. Jill Cairns, International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT)
  5. Lieven Claessens, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and Wageningen University & Research (WUR)
  6. Walter Baethgen, International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI)
  7. Christian Bunn, International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT)
  8. Michael Friedmann, CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB), International Potato Centre (CIP)
  9. Ken Giller, Wageningen University & Research (WUR)
  10. Mario Herrero, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO)
  11. Mark Howden, Australian National University
  12. Kevin Kilcline, National University of Ireland, Galway
  13. Vinay Nangia, International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA)
  14. Julian Ramirez, International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT)
  15. Shalander Kumar, International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT)
  16. Paul C West, Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota
  17. Brian Keating, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO)

The authors thank Sravya Mamidanna, E K Patan, Martin Noponen, Mustapha Dalaa, Patrick Adjewodah, Felix Schreyer, Richard Asare, Laurence Jassogne, Mark Lundy, Jan Low, Keith Wiebe and Graham Thiele for inputs to the paper. The authors also thank three reviewers for constructive comments on an earlier version of the paper.

Philip Thornton, Antony Whitbread and Shalander Kumar acknowledge funding to CCAFS from CGIAR Trust Fund Donors and through bilateral funding agreements (for details see Paul C West and Mario Herrero acknowledge the Belmont Forum for funding to the DEVIL project.