SDG Perspectives from Japan: Insights from Alexandros Gasparatos, an ecological economist

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By: Guest contributor, Mon Mar 15 2021

Author: Guest contributor

Bringing together research and other communities of people who are striving to solve global societal challenges addressed by SDGs is important to make our world a better place and to create a more sustainable future for all. On 26 March 2021, Springer Nature and the University of Tokyo in Japan will be holding an SDGs symposium, inviting some of Japan’s renowned researchers and Editor in Chief of Springer Nature. In this blog series, panelists who will be speaking at this symposium, will share their perspectives on how to achieve the SDGs.

Here Alexandros Gasparatos of the University of Tokyo explains about his research on the links between commodity crop production in Sub-Saharan Africa, and local food security

How does your research relate to the SDGs and which SDGs in particular?
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My research field is ecological economics, so I study the linkages between humans and nature. It is a very interdisciplinary field that uses various analytical methods to explore how human activities affect ecosystems, as well as the ways that social and economic systems are impacted in turn by this ecosystem change.

I am currently involved in many studies, but my longest-running project began in 2011 to study the relationship between commodity crop production in Sub-Saharan Africa and the food security of rural residents.

It is commonly stated that the food security of rural inhabitants in Sub-Saharan Africa is threatened when agricultural land that was previously used to grow food crops, such as maize and cassava, is converted for the cultivation of commodity crops, such as sugarcane, cotton, cocoa and oil palm. Conversely, from the standpoint of rural development, many scholars have pointed that commodity crop production can reduce rural poverty and modernize agricultural systems, thus having positive effects on food security. With opinions so polarized, the truth is probably somewhere between these two extremes. Personally I am interested in investigating the actual situation at the local level through fieldwork, rather than through macro-level studies or modelling.

What we have learned through 25 case studies across Sub-Saharan Africa, including in countries such as Malawi, Eswatini, Kenya, and Ghana, is that there are very different mechanisms through which commodity crops intersect with food security. In some cases commodity crops have positive effects for food security and in some cases negative effects. Sometimes even for the same commodity crop, there can be dramatically different impacts depending on the social and environmental context, such as whether a market exists and how producers are involved in value chains.

Workers in an oil palm plantation in Kwae, Ghana  |  Credit: Abubakari AHMED

That said, I am especially interested on the question of whether there can be ways for delivering appropriate benefits to the people who grow and sell these commodity crops. When there are immature markets or exploitation from intermediaries, it is highly likely that the land use conversion for commodity crops would not deliver real benefits to producers. This sort of failure is common to many development interventions in Sub-Saharan Africa, not only commodity crops.

Considering the above, I would say that my research mainly relates to the SDGs for poverty and hunger (SDG 1 and 2). I would also say that my research is also related to SDG 15 (protecting terrestrial biodiversity), SDG 8 (achieving decent work and economic growth), and SDG 9 (industry and innovation).

Small-scale sugarcane processors in Dabala, Ghana | Credit: Abubakari AHMED
How important is transdisciplinarity in SDG research? What is needed in order to accomplish that effectively?

An interdisciplinary approach is essential in carrying out our research projects. For example, in our study of commodity crops and food security in Africa, our team has included experts from different countries and with different disciplinary backgrounds and expertise. This has included savanna ecologists and agricultural economists, as well as experts in energy policy considering that some commodity crops can be used for biofuels production; for example, ethanol made from sugarcane.

However, collaboration among different types of organizations is also necessary. We partner with a variety of organizations beyond academia, including national and private research institutes, companies, and government agencies. Every organization has its own DNA, and this brings very valuable input to the research. However, sometimes different organisations have completely different working approach or standards of what is desirable. For example, academics tend to focus on novelty in their research themes and publish a lot of good papers, while non-academics have a more applied and grounded approach in their work. All these are very valuable in transdisciplinary research, so whenever I propose a new project, I try to make sure that it will be something that does not only appeal to academics. The reality is that communication among collaborators from different organizations is often difficult, but can be overcome when we share a common passion.

What should be done to encourage more younger researchers to get involved in research related to the SDGs? Please share your advice for young researchers who want their work to have an impact on society.

Be open-minded. That says it all. If you only work within your academic field or at one university, you will only be able to see things from that perspective. It's important to work with people from different academic fields, people from different organizations, and people who have different cultural backgrounds. That way, you will be able to see the same problem from completely different perspectives.

Joint research with people from different disciplines, organizations, and backgrounds is not easy. For example, there can be different viewpoints or even timelines for finishing deliverables, which may cause some awkwardness at first. For example, us academics are often more flexible and can write articles based on whatever timing suits us because we are not often bound by the same time constraints inherent to the projects. However, researchers from other organisations might have more severe time constrains to finish their research deliverables. It's important to find creative ways to overcome such issues. This is not easy, but an attitude of accepting the perspectives of people who think differently will make your research stronger.

This author will be present at SDGs Symposium 2021: Interdisciplinary science solutions for food, water, climate and ecosystems Sustainable Development Goals (March 26, 2021; online event, free registration)

About Alexandros Gasparatos 

Alex Gasparatos

Associate Professor, Institute for Future Initiatives (IFI), The University of Tokyo

Alexandros Gasparatos is Associate Professor at the Institute of Future Initiatives (IFI) at the University of Tokyo. As an ecological economist he is interested in the development, refinement and application of sustainability assessment and ecosystem services valuation tools. He has applied such tools in different topics such as food security, energy policy, green economy, and urban sustainability in many developing countries of Africa and Asia. Before joining IFI he conducted postdoctoral research at the University of Oxford and the United Nations University. He is an Editor for Sustainability Science, People and Nature, and Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, and has served as a Coordinating Lead Author (CLA) for the Asia-Pacific Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

Video: Gasparatos Lab

This article is also published on the UTokyo Institute for Future Initiatives (IFI) website.


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