Around 400 posters were exhibited at the Tropentag.
Photo: Martin Grauduszus

Tropentag 2023: Pathways for food systems transformation

This year's Tropentag – one of the biggest scientific conferences in central Europe on agriculture, nutrition and food security in the Global South - was dedicated to the topic "Competing pathways for equitable food systems transformation – trade-offs and synergies".

The urgently needed transformation of our food systems was at the centre of this year’s Tropentag – and with it the hotly contested question of how to analyse and finally overcome the dichotomy between technical solutions on the one hand and alternative options which focus more on paradigm shifts and the respective underlying webs of relations in our food systems on the other. Jointly organised by Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and the Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF), the Tropentag – an annual interdisciplinary conference on research in tropical and subtropical agriculture, natural resource management and rural development – took place in Berlin/Germany in late September. It included over 130 presentations in roughly 30 sessions as well as 400 poster presentations. More than 1,000 experts registered for the event, and over 30 pre-conference workshops were held.

Germany’s Federal Minister for Food and Agriculture, Cem Özdemir, acknowledged the large number of young researchers from all over the globe who participated in the conference and encouraged them to go beyond scientific learning: “Use the networking opportunities because it is only together that we will meet the SDG agenda.” The “Meet and greet” exchange between the invited keynote speakers and junior scientists who were able to address renowned researchers with questions regarding career path development and discuss upcoming research opportunities and research topics in an Apéro was a good opportunity for this.

Gender matters

The topics addressed at Tropentag were very diverse, reaching e.g. from pest and disease control through management of agroforestry systems to gender perspectives and agri-food value chain development. In the session “Gender and intersectional perspectives in transforming food systems”, the research approaches presented from Colombia, Guatemala and East Africa underlined the importance to include women centrally in the transformation of food systems. Women are essential stakeholders regarding knowledge of agricultural practices but are still by far not effectively enough integrated into strategies focusing on agricultural development. Simultaneously, they are often marginalised e.g. in land tenure, even though their share in feeding their families is very often substantial.

In the same session, promising approaches to overcome these hurdles were presented, such as the “women’s empowerment in energy index” developed by the Indian Institute of Management and IFPRI. A presentation on gender and climate change adaptation in refugee hosting landscapes in arid tropics of Eastern Africa was particularly noteworthy. In the project presented, house gardens (sometimes of just one square metre) were featured as key to successfully improving the food and nutrition security of refugees in the region. In the fragile contexts where these refugees, mainly women, live, even the smallest projects using e.g. recycled water, organic waste and local materials have proven to be very successful. These are small changes, but they are of essential importance and add up in their impact.

Furthermore, the discussion revealed that in such arid areas, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) cannot, for example, allow the use of freshwater for agricultural purposes if human consumption is not adequately covered. If, on the contrary, greywater is used for gardens, water is efficiently applied in a cascading manner and supplies affected refugee families with fresh vegetables. Thus, women and children can become partners in ecological stabilization and restoration efforts in the project “Resource, Recovery and Reuse in Refugee Settlements in Africa” which is led by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and World Agroforestry (ICRAF).

Sustainable land management – key to future food production

In times of an accelerating climate crisis, sustainable land management becomes particularly important to sustain or even regenerate natural resources to guarantee adequate qualitative and quantitative food production in the future. The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) has acknowledged this by funding four research projects plus one project focusing on accompanying research aiming to develop solutions/ best practice examples in different settings.

In the respective pre-session, research strategies in the fields of agriculture, rural development, natural resource protection and food security were openly discussed to foster mutual learning processes and boost respective knowledge exchange. In this event, the discussion meandered around key topics such as “co-design of innovation”, “science communication and knowledge management” as well as “gender sensitivity”. In a subsequent World Café format, experts analysed past project experience and put it into perspective with ideal scenarios. The major key message developed is that stakeholders should be at the centre of research and that research is done for and with them. Subsequently, stakeholders should be integrated in research as early as possible – and they should remain at the centre throughout the project lifetime.

Who decides – governance of food system transformation

Sustainable transformation of food systems is, by definition, a complete change in the character of the respective system towards sustainability. However, often enough, the question remains who decides which pathways are to be taken when. In a session focusing on exactly this topic, researchers presented rather broad approaches, such as an analysis of the state of urban food policy action in 171 Asian cities in 21 countries, but also narrowed down the discussion on access to agricultural land for Uruguayan youth or governance challenges in smallholder agricultural carbon projects in Kenya. Particularly the latter is of crucial importance, as food systems are very likely to become increasingly important in the debate about climate change.

Pay Drechsel of IWMI presented an analysis of the political agenda and the devastating effects of the suddenly implemented ban on the import of agrochemicals in Sri Lanka, the results of which might also be interesting in the context of the current global trend towards agroecology. It was found that the abrupt ban had a particularly dramatic effect on plantation production in the country. Alternatives were also calculated and discussed in the presentation, such as the use of biowaste as fertiliser, but the vast geographical distances to be covered in the country prevent any economically sound application, which is also true for the import of organic fertiliser, e.g. from China.

Science meets culture

Beside the pure scientific focus, the Tropentag essentially integrated the arts, as the latter are increasingly becoming important not only for communicating scientific findings to the public but also, for example, as tool for collecting data. In the light of this growing importance, the organisers reserved a whole floor for a fruitful exchange between the two worlds. One example is the “Agroecology film festival”, where several movies focusing particularly on South America highlighted the struggle for sustaining traditional ways of farming. Furthermore, audiovisual exhibitions and the performance “Cacao: The sound of extinction” allowed the audience to dive into a multi-sensorial immersive experience.

Particularly now, shortly after the heads of many states met in New York to underline the need for a sprint to achieve the SDGs, the exchange between researchers from different seniority levels, disciplines and continents is needed to boost the dissemination of concepts and ideas in the Global South. The next Tropentag 2024, in Vienna/Austria, will hopefully again be remembered as a buzzling and successful event which has strengthened the urgent transformation of food systems globally.

Harry Hoffmann, Senior Research Associate, Governance of Food Systems Transformation, TMG Research gGmbh, Berlin/Germany

Further reading:

Rural 21's Dossier on Food Systems

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