Some Things Have to Die for Others to Live: Why Scaling Down is Just as Important as Scaling Up in the Transformation of Global Food Systems
The transboundary impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and the Russia-Ukraine war have exposed the fragility and inequity of global food systems. But though calls for the transformation of food systems abound, there is no quick fix.
In our previous NextBillion article, we used a systems thinking tool called the iceberg model to show that sustained, large-scale change only happens if the entrenched patterns that drive a system are changed. These entrenched patterns include the mindsets and behaviors responsible for the kinds of institutions, rules, regulations and priorities that characterize the system. Thus, changing a system that perpetuates the problem to one that perpetuates the solutions requires attention to deep-rooted ways of doing things. As Einstein put it: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
Strategies to transform food systems typically focus on introducing new technologies, scaling up proven innovations, and putting more money into programs that have shown promising results at small scale. But there’s hardly any attention dedicated to breaking down the bad habits, mindsets and institutions that are perpetuating the problem.
We work at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), an international research organization dedicated to supporting innovations in agriculture to advance sustainable rural development. For half a century, CIMMYT has worked with partners like the Food and Agriculture Organization to scale up conservation agriculture (CA) practices among smallholder farmers in Africa, Central America and South Asia. We’ve experienced mixed success. CA improves soil health and crop yields through farm practices that maintain soil cover (mulch), cause minimal soil disturbance and enable crop diversification. It allows soil fauna, such as earthworms, to decompose organic matter on the surface, and increases the soil’s fertility, carbon storage and water holding capacity. Planting in CA fields requires the use of equipment that can make small holes, or narrow strips, through the mulch and into the soil, allowing seeds to be planted in specific spots while leaving the rest of the soil undisturbed. These implements, which include drillers and seeders, also keep most crop residues (i.e., mulch) in place at the surface. We refer to this as no-till farming. It offers many advantages over ploughing — the forceful overturning and mashing of the topsoil to reveal the soil underneath. But ploughing has been the dominant way of preparing land for planting in most of the world’s agricultural traditions, so changing this practice constitutes a major break with the past.
Intentionally breaking down the dominant modus operandi to make space for the build-up of a completely different way of working is not a common approach in international development. How can we make this sort of shift, in which the scaling up of a new technology or practice is based on the scaling down of an existing practice? In this article we use a tool called the X-curve to help highlight the actions that can contribute to healthier soils and more stable crop yields, by simultaneously scaling down unsustainable farming practices and scaling up CA and other practices that protect soil health.
Using the X-Curve to visualize systems change
The X-curve is a simplified visualization of transition dynamics: It helps us to better understand the process of generating and anchoring new sustainable practices and structures, while also questioning, destabilizing and discontinuing existing unsustainable ones. As shown in the figure below, the X-curve starts by defining a current dominant system (on the left) that is transforming to a new system (on the right).
To move from the dominant system to a new system, we need to pay attention to the interaction between two parallel transitions:
- The scaling up of innovations, including: getting the market to embrace them; institutionalizing them in our organizations and regulations; and anchoring in the minds of stakeholders that this is the new way of doing things. This transition is represented by the green S-curve going up.
- The destabilization and intentional scaling down of the existing mental models, structures and technologies, in order to create space for alternatives to emerge. This is represented by the orange S-curve going down.
The two curves cross each other in a space of chaos, an uncertain period where the dominant and emerging system are out of equilibrium. At this point in the transition, there is uncertainty and ambiguity about the future, as it remains unclear in which direction the system is moving forward. Seen through a more positive lens, this space could also be called a window of opportunity, as it is also the period when there’s room for doubt and openness to change. This is the tipping point when the dominant system breaks down and is phased out, because it is no longer able to fulfil its original function, and is also unable to meet the needs of the emerging system. To take a well-known example from the communications sector, the analogue phone could not fulfil key functions in an emerging system designed for digital phones, which made the analogue phone system obsolete as the accessibility of digital innovations increased around the world.
understanding farmer ploughing practices in order to change them
Before we can use the X-curve to develop strategies to change farmers’ soil management practices, it’s important to understand the reasons behind their current practices.
Smallholder farmers in the Global South produce about one-third of the world’s food. For the past 100 years they have relied on ploughing equipment to prepare land for the next growing season. This involves cutting and inverting the topsoil, to eliminate weeds and residues from the previous season and to open up the soil for planting new seeds.
Ploughing in the Global South is largely done by hand hoes, or animal- or machine-powered moldboard ploughs. As illustrated by Ethiopia’s 50 Birr note (see photo on the right), the archetypical image of a successful farmer around the world is someone who ploughs the land, rather than someone who protects the soil and its biodiversity from erosion and overexploitation. In another clear example from Africa, the words “kurima” in the Shona language of Zimbabwe and “kilimu” in Swahili mean both agriculture and ploughing. This shows how deeply ingrained ploughing is in these cultures.
Outside efforts to boost agricultural output in the Global South have also tended to focus on ploughing practices — specifically, on encouraging farmers to shift from animal-drawn ploughs to motorized alternatives. Support for mechanization in the Global South from abroad often comes in the form of powerful tractors with heavy disc ploughs. These disc ploughs go deep and move a lot of soil, which requires a lot of energy — and thus they rely on high horsepower tractors.
moving toward a more sustainable approach to farming
It may appear that tractors and disc-ploughs are welded together, but as a matter of fact they’re separate farming implements: The tractor is simply the power source, and it can carry any implement — from ploughs to no-till direct seeders. Hence, if the plough is eliminated the tractor’s size and horsepower requirements can be reduced, allowing farmers to use smaller, less expensive tractors. But despite these benefits, informal and formal teaching in many farming communities focuses on how to use ploughs to increase yields through weed control, and not on alternative options for soil health based on the withdrawal of ploughing to enable conservation agriculture.
However, doubts about this dominant system have been growing for decades. Ploughing is hard work, it increases soil degradation and decreases carbon stocks. Moreover, labor availability and energy costs have made ploughing prohibitive for the ageing, often female-led farming workforce. Combined with the movement toward climate change mitigation and adaptation measures, which hinge on maintaining carbon in the soil, people globally have started questioning the dominant practice of ploughing. This has led to growing interest in a more sustainable and resilient approach to farming, one that increases carbon sequestration and improves rather than diminishes soil health for future generations.
CIMMYT and many other agricultural R&D organizations have been experimenting with CA, and we have found that minimal soil disturbance is a critical component of the practice. A lot of CA research has revolved around the effect of different minimal and no-till implements on soil biodiversity, fertility and carbon build-up. Through our experience with multiple donor-funded projects, we’ve seen the need for complementary investments in awareness and capacity development around no-till techniques, as well as private and public sector engagement to accelerate and institutionalize their widespread adoption. There is growing recognition in the agriculture and development sectors that this transition is necessary, as illustrated by global statements such as the African Union’s ambition to “retire the hoe to the museum” by 2030, and the Sustainable Development Goals’ focus on soil management and other sustainable farming practices.
Returning to the X-curve: Due to this openness to new practices, many countries may be approaching the intersection between the breakdown of ploughing as a “normal” practice and the build-up of no-till farming as the new norm. That would put them at the point of chaos in the X-curve, where they are experiencing contradictions and uncertainties in their use of different tillage techniques. As mentioned, there are already alternatives for tillage that improve crop yields and soil health. However, no-till techniques also have some downsides: They are not very successful in weed management, often requiring the use of herbicides which are associated with various health, environmental and financial risks. At the same time, the cost, accessibility and farmer awareness of no-till implements are generally low. With low and scattered demand in rural areas, the private sector is not very incentivized to make these implements more accessible.
Thus, to introduce no-till techniques, it is also necessary to broaden the focus of farmers to include not only crop yields but also the long-term benefits of healthier soil. To that end, it’s important to change the commonly held stereotype of a farmer as someone who ploughs, to a new image as someone who acts as a steward of the soil, in order to encourage other farmers to make the transition to no-till techniques. It is also necessary to show farmers examples of how these new practices can still solve their problems — specifically, weed control. Zambia offers a nice example of how this shift can be advanced on multiple fronts: The country is institutionalizing no-till farming and deinstitutionalizing ploughing through a national task force hosted by the government to promote public-private partnerships for the adoption of no-till techniques, and through universities teaching about CA.
x-curve learnings: unlocking alternative solutions to sustainable agriculture
It is difficult to say how long a period of chaos or window of opportunity will last. But with the growing acceptance that our food systems require a fundamental transformation, it is inevitable that there will be drastic changes in the way we manage farm soils. Policymakers, investors, businesses and civil society have the combined power to slow down, speed up and direct the processes in this transition. Sooner or later, the food system challenges the world is facing will require a sustainable shift in mindset, leading companies to convert their farming implements to no-till alternatives, and producing new solutions to the problem of weed control in CA systems.
The X-curve shows that the development sector’s dominant singular focus on scaling up innovations is not doing justice to the complexity, the multitude of small changes, and the diversity of stakeholders involved in achieving a sustainable change at scale. The downward S-curve that illustrates the breakdown of existing practices has a strong influence on the upward S-curve that highlights the adoption of new ones. As a result, the X-curve shows that systems change is not only about adding elements, but also about modifying or withdrawing those elements which do not fit into a sustainable vision of the future. Increasing our focus on the downward S-curve opens the door to new ways of establishing and entrenching a new order, as adopting something new also means letting go of something old.
Adopting new practices comes with risks, especially for vulnerable smallholder farmers, and we need to be more intentional in understanding these risks and addressing any trade-offs if we hope to convince people to change their practices. This may involve raising farmers’ awareness that their dominant practices are problematic in the long run, showing them that there are alternatives, and finding ways to counteract the downsides of the change by maximizing the benefits of the new approaches. Accomplishing this will require the investment of more time and money — not only in developing and scaling up new ideas, but also in facilitating the process of scaling down old ones. This dual focus can help us execute two simultaneous transitions in farming, moving it away from ploughing and toward soil conservation, and sparking the necessary transformation of global food systems.
This article was supported by CIMMYT and made possible with the generous support of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) commissioned by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) through the Fund International Agricultural Research (FIA), grant number: 50094078. The authors thank Josef Kienzle, Christian Thierfelder and Simon Fonteyne for their suggestions to improve the article. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIMMYT or the donors.
Eva Valencia is a Scaling Coordinator at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Lennart Woltering is a Scaling Catalyst at CIMMYT, Frédéric Goulet is a social scientist at the Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement (CIRAD, France).
Photo courtesy of Mathias Isenberg.