Dilemma’s around scaling of food nutrition and security innovations

Scaling innovations is often seen as essential for improving food and nutrition security, in particular for marginalised groups. During the Food Fights online webinar earlier this year, the central question was whether scalability is essential to improving food and nutrition security for a larger amount of farmers in Low and Middle Income Countries (LMICs).


The webinar was part of a series organised by the Dutch Research Council, Science for Global Development (NWO-WOTRO) and builds on the Food & Business Research (F&BR) synthesis article, “Addressing scaling dilemmas in achieving Food and Nutrition Security”. The Food & Business Research program is part of the F&BR Knowledge Agenda that was initiated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and implemented in collaboration with the Food & Business Knowledge Platform (F&BKP), which has transitioned into the Netherlands Food Partnership. This platform aimed to strengthen knowledge-sharing​, research and innovation in the field food and nutrition security. The F&BR program has funded 75 research projects in 29 project countries. Eight main thematic areas were derived from those projects and central in 8 papers in the synthesis studies of which scaling is one.

Lessons on scaling for F&BR projects

Corinne Lamain (Senior Policy Officer, NWO-WOTRO) stressed that scaling has proved to be key in achieving zero hunger, but is not as easy as it seems, and there is much more to say about it. Rob Lubberink (Assistant Professor of Circular Economy, Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences) explained: “Scaling is not about reaching as many people as possible with an innovation. Scaling is a process of resolving or alleviating problems related to food and nutrition security by continuously learning what bundle of innovations is actually best suited for tackling these problems. Within the process, scaling is not to be pursued as an end in itself. Instead, scaling is to be considered as a means to create the impact, to resolve these problems.”

Those insights from the F&BR project formed the basis for the online debate that was held by Frejus Thoto (Director, ACED-BENIN) and Cees Leeuwis, of Wageningen University & Research. They were asked to discuss the following statements:

“Scaling innovations is essential for improving food and nutrition security for marginalised groups” and “Do all innovations need to be scaled and thus reach large amounts of farmers for food and nutrition security in LMICs to become possible?”

Multiple F&BR projects that aim to scale for impact have been analysed and synthesised for the synthesis paper, Rob Lubberink was one of the main authors. The study has identified blind spots and dilemmas that are part of scaling. Five recurring blind spots are: 1. Power and politics; 2. Discourse and framing; 3. Enabling environment and policies; 4. Bottlenecks; and 5. Competencies for scaling. Three recurring dilemma’s faced are: Who moves first? Do we opt for more short-term gains or do we opt for longer term solutions? Do we adopt complex systemic perspectives or isolated interventions?

These blind spots and dilemmas are very important for actors to reflect upon when they are involved in scaling. Rob Lubberink emphasises that scaling is not neutral, “It comes with a certain view of what food and nutrition security should look like, or how the problems in food and nutrition security are to be understood”. To illustrate this, Gloria Otieno (Associate Scientist, Genetic Resources and Food Security Policy, Bioversity International) shared examples from the Citizen Science project in Uganda and Ethiopia, which focused on scaling climate-smart seed varieties. The main blind stop was in the policy environment in which they were engaging. These varieties were climate smart, but not yet registered, which makes commercialisation impossible. This impeded their process of upscaling and to remedy that, they engaged with the policy makers at the Ministry of Agriculture. They provided evidence of research that these varieties are indeed climate smart and they perform better in terms of yield and tolerance and were consequently added to a separate list that ensured quality and clearance for farmers.

Debate on essence of scaling for F&NS outcomes for smallholders

Frejus Thoto was requested to advocate for this proposition, whilst Cees Leeuwis, of Wageningen University & Research provided the counter arguments.

Frejus Thoto sees scaling as one of the most critical discussions in food and nutrition security sector, especially in developing countries, “How do we move from isolated experiments to large scale change and broader systemic impact?”. As problems are quite similar across regions, scaling is important, in order to not make the same mistakes. The development community is clear about the fact that there are a lot of innovations, interesting research findings, new products and services that could solve most of the challenges faced today, including food insecurity and malnutrition. Frejus Thoto therefore stresses that policies must be changed, so that new development strategies are designed and institutional resources are redirected towards the scaling of those innovations. And for this to happen it is very important to mobilise the power of the public sector and the private sector for demonstrating business cases for the innovations.

Cees Leeuwis advocated against the statement that scaling is essential for improving food and nutrition security of marginalised groups. “This proposition is historically incorrect, and utter nonsense in the current system”. The proposition talks about marginalised groups and the majority of these are small farmers with little resources as well as farm labourers with females of both groups, even in a more vulnerable position. These are precisely the people that are not likely to benefit from scaling innovations. In fact, scaling in food systems tends to put farmers and labourers out of business. Therefore, innovation will lead to further marginalisation. Cees Leeuwis describes, “Some will benefit, but those are the people who adopt first. Those are often not the marginalised. Market dynamics will force others to follow.” First here needs to be a level playing field created before innovations are going to improve anything for marginalised groups.

Discussion with the audience

The statement on creating a level playing field triggered some remarks from the online audience, questions that were asked included: Has innovation raised food production tremendously and reduced poverty and hunger? Should we not leave scaling entirely to the ‘market’ and let governments and NGOs can play an active role in supporting social innovations? Mariëlle Karssenberg (Knowledge Broker, Netherlands Food Partnership) also picks up on Cees Leeuwis’ last comment on creating a level playing field, and asked, “What would be some recommended steps to take to provide such a level playing field? What role can different stakeholders play in that?” Cees Leeuwis underscored that political action is needed, “We need to change the rules of the game. We can do so by changing the market. Political power is needed to overthrow the neoliberal markets that drive innovation”.

In addition, the audience brought up the concept of scaling as such for discussion, as it depends on the particular situation and internal/external factors affecting a particular food system. Likewise, innovation should be ‘scaled’, not (only) innovations, but it all comes down to the definition of ‘scaling’ and innovations. Questions that were raised were critical of the dominance and vested interest in the food system through political decision-making. It left the audience wondering whether the problem lies with scaling itself, or rather with the types of innovations that have been scaled thus far.

At the end of the session a voting round was done. The arguments against the proposition made by Cees Leeuwis were considered most convincing. One of the audience members underlined this with the idea that, “Scaling innovations has led to an exodus of farmers out of agriculture, with decline living incomes as a result” and another stated “scaling is biased and dominated by the food industry; marginalising people rather than increasing their food security”. These statements leave it open for discussion with regards to, who scaling is for in agriculture and who really benefits from it.