Researchers argue that trade-offs in value-chain interventions need to be explicitly recognized within the wider agri-food system to achieve the Goals, suggesting a ‘do no harm’ agenda.

Managing trade-offs in agri-food systems for outcomes that ‘do no harm’ is central to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. However, analyses of pro-poor value chains, nutrition-sensitive value chains, and greening of value chains by a team of researchers from World Agroforestry (ICRAF), Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics has found numerous problematic assumptions and a limited evidence base for these approaches to achieve their intended impact.

‘When examining the potential for value-chain interventions to support the achievements of the Sustainable Development Goals, we started off by analysing the three popular categories separately. It quickly emerged that there was some tension across these with respect to different target groups and their theory of change,’ said Kai Mausch, lead author of the team’s study published in Global Food Security in October 2020.

Given that any intervention implies some trade-offs, writes the team, an assessment of the contributions to the Goals would need to consider the whole agri-food system.

‘The holistic agri-food system framework lends itself to unearth conflicting logics and trade-offs in development outcomes,’ said co-author Caroline Hambloch of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, ‘and we see that it’s important to make such trade-offs explicit and discuss them openly and honestly. We outline steps to embed a “do no harm” principle in design and evaluation of interventions aimed at transforming value chains.’

A agri-food system schematic. (Own presentation based on IFPRI, 2020)

A agri-food system schematic. (Own presentation based on IFPRI, 2020)

‘The weighing of different consequences of interventions — be they positive or negative — involves judgment calls over societal goals that affect different targets, groups of people, regions or any number of other segments within the system,’ said Andrew Hall, co-author from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. ‘Given the societal nature of goals like Zero Poverty, Zero Hunger and Responsible Consumption and Production, trade-offs that favour one group over another will also have to be discussed openly and widely to build a consensus on priorities and hierarchies.’

For example, the team asks, is achieving Zero Poverty worth sacrificing natural environments that are already in decline? Is the world willing to give up some environmental targets to achieve Zero Hunger? Are societies in higher income countries ready to reduce their luxuries and support the redistribution of wealth and power to help lower income countries?

There is a need for a much broader debate to define societal goals in relation to acceptable trade-offs and mitigation measures, and who can and should bear the costs.

‘This debate should also be at the core of discussions toward global food security, which is at the heart of these difficult choices in developing countries,’ said Mausch. ‘I am sure that ensuring global food security is a goal that most, if not all, stakeholders agree should not be compromised in any way. We also believe a system-level view of these questions will reveal options for mitigation as well as synergies that can be exploited.’

The team argues that the fundamental principle should always be ‘do no harm’. They add that if development planners and implementation agencies are clear about the trade-offs based on openly communicated value judgements, they will generate and add to micro-narratives that may eventually reveal the systemic constraints. This trickle of evidence will lead to broader understanding and may push decision-makers toward considering more systemic changes.

This article is originally published on ICRAF News.

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