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Agri-systems research to enhance livelihoods in developing countries

Copyright: dave_valler/iStock/Thinkstock

Call status: Closed
Previous call: 9 July 2018 - 19 September 2018


BBSRC is pleased to announce a call for collaborative proposals to address research challenges relating to the sustainable intensification of agricultural systems in developing countries.

The aim of this call is to enhance livelihoods through interdisciplinary research to improve agricultural systems by understanding, at multiple scales, interactions between the biology of crops and farmed animals (including aquaculture), their environments and management.

The call is funded from the UK government’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF). As well as being scientifically excellent, research supported under it must meet the criteria for classification of expenditure as Official Development Assistance (ODA). Up to £8 million is available, subject to the quality of proposals received.

Proposals must be led by an eligible Principal Investigator (PI) in the UK, but are expected to be co-designed and delivered in equitable partnerships with “in-country” researchers - who should be included as Co-Investigators (Co-Is) - to deliver tangible benefits to Development Assistance Committee (DAC)-listed countries. They must be based on an existing UK-DAC-list country partnership, evidence of which should be provided. This should include details of earlier collaborative research and outputs that can be built on.

As well as demonstrating how it builds on earlier work by existing collaborators, the proposal must describe how it relates to relevant ongoing and past research by others, in order to demonstrate that the proposed new work would be innovative and complementary, and not duplicative.

The proposal should also demonstrate clear links to relevant stakeholders in the target country/countries. Due to the requirement for projects to begin on 1 April 2019, and be completed within two years, we expect all consortium building and project scoping to have taken place before submitting a proposal.

Funds can be requested for up to two years. The call will close on 19 September 2018, and projects must start no later than 1 April 2019.


To provide an opportunity to learn more about this call and ask questions, we hosted a webinar on 16 July 2018. The webinar was for UK PI’s who will lead a proposal, and their supporting research office staff.

The aim of this webinar was to assist lead applicants in addressing BBSRC’s expectations of this call.


The Global Challenges Research Fund is a £1.5 billion fund announced by the UK government in 2015 to support cutting-edge research that addresses the challenges faced by developing countries. Alongside other GCRF delivery partners we are creating complementary programmes that:

  • promote challenge-led disciplinary and interdisciplinary research, including the participation of researchers who may not previously have considered the applicability of their work to development issues
  • strengthen capacity for research, innovation and knowledge exchange in the UK and developing countries through partnership with excellent UK research and researchers
  • provide an agile response to emergencies where there is an urgent research need.

GCRF is part of the government’s commitment to allocate 0.7% of the UK’s Gross National Income to Official Development Assistance for promoting the welfare and economic development of developing countries. As well as being scientifically excellent, research supported by GCRF must meet the criteria for classification of expenditure as ODA. For further information see: UK Research and Innovation: Global Challenges Research Fund.

This call has been informed by the needs of developing countries, as expressed in the report of a workshop held in Kenya in March 2017 (see: Sustainable intensification Research Network: Report on BBSRC-Led workshop on the sustainable intensification of agricultural systems in sub-Saharan Africa is now available), the UK Department for International Development's research strategy, in particularly its SAIRLA programme (see: Sustainable Agricultural Intensification Research and Learning in Africa (SAIRLA)), and consultation with other external stakeholders. The call aims to build on previous GCRF calls: Foundation Awards for Global Agricultural and Food Systems Research and Sustainable Agriculture for Sub-Saharan Africa.

Purpose and aims

Global demand for food is rising because of both population growth and increased consumption associated with increasing affluence and urbanisation. It is estimated that at least 50% more food will need to be produced (ref 1) to feed the world’s population which is projected to grow from 7.3 billion in 2015 to 9.5 billion in 2050 (ref 2).

There is a global need to increase crop and animal production more sustainably and more resiliently, from the same or a smaller area of cultivated land and with lower inputs. This must be achieved while minimising adverse impacts of agriculture on biodiversity, soil, water and the atmosphere, and in the face of a changing climate, extreme weather events and threats from emerging pests and diseases.

Integration of landscape management and regulatory frameworks at the local level is needed to enhance ecosystem benefits to, and from, agriculture. Better understanding is required of the multiple (often competing) interactions between different elements of agricultural systems, and their implications at various scales (plot-farm landscape-society) - at the farm-scale, by developing integrated farming systems that combine practices to manage soil, water, plants and farmed animals in ways which enable crops and animals to be produced in more sustainable and resilient ways. A particular priority is to understand the aggregated impacts of practices across landscapes and how interventions could be targeted to increase productivity, enhance livelihoods and promote economic development, whilst reducing environmental degradation and protecting biodiversity on a wider scale.

Local conditions vary significantly (with different soil types, habitats and agro-ecologies etc.), but research is particularly required in areas where managed systems are degrading sensitive habits, and where multiple stakeholders have competing interests. Research under this call could improve all types of farming systems, but the potential benefits may be greater for smallholder/diverse systems, and in areas with high human and livestock populations. Smallholder farming landscapes are also managed for other things, e.g. fuel and building materials, and in many areas there is also reliance on wild food and medicinal plants. Interventions to enhance agriculture also need to take account of potential impacts on associated natural and semi-natural habitats.

The call aims to support collaborative interdisciplinary research that would enhance livelihoods in developing countries through:

  • Multi-scale approaches to understand the interactions and impacts of components within agricultural systems
  • Systems-oriented research to understand environmental dependencies and impacts of agriculture and their effects on livelihoods.


This call aims to enhance livelihoods in developing countries through research to improve the productivity, sustainability, resilience and health of crops and/or farmed animals (including aquaculture) while maintaining or enhancing natural capital and other ecosystem services. This will be delivered through multi/inter-disciplinary and multi-scale studies of agricultural systems. The call will support studies of interactions between the diverse elements of agricultural systems (soil, water, nutrients, beneficial biodiversity, pests, crops, farmed animals), their effects at different scales, and the implications of interventions for productivity, resilience and sustainability (including potential trade-offs between them). This includes the potential for integrated land management, beyond the individual field or farm, to optimise production and other ecosystem services at a wider landscape scale. Proposals should be designed in consultation with farmers and other relevant stakeholders in the target country/countries. They should take account of the need for local farming practices to be integrated with wider landscape management and regulatory frameworks, to optimise or enhance the benefits to agriculture of ecosystem services and vice versa. Proposals should address challenges under one or more of the following themes:

Multi-scale approaches to understand the interactions and impacts of components within agricultural systems

Many smallholder farmers in DAC-listed countries operate mixed farming systems with little access to external inputs. Risk of food production failure due to weather or pest/disease must be minimised through early prediction, embracing a range of farming activities to reduce the impact of single-point failure, using crop and animal breeds that are better adapted to potential change and optimal use of farm/local/environmental resources. Therefore, we welcome multi-scale and agri-systems approaches that:

  1. Integrate the biology of crops and farmed animals with their management in different agri-environments.
  2. Use modelling to understand the potential trade-offs within the agricultural system and develop a predictive approach to assessing vulnerabilities and impacts.
  3. Develop tools and metrics to measure sustainability of agri-systems (sustainability of production and environment) - ‘outcome-based’ measurements, as distinct from ‘action-based’ metrics, that have multidimensional criteria, take account of trade-offs and incorporate multiple scales.
  4. Inform understanding of the agronomic potential of natural capital (beneficial organisms - fauna or flora, above or below ground) for enhancing crop productivity or countering pests, weeds or diseases.
  5. Validate sustainable intensification strategies for increasing crop/farmed animal productivity and mixed farming systems.

Systems-oriented research to understand the environmental dependencies and impacts of agriculture and their effects on livelihoods

Agri-systems rely on the maintenance of a wide range of supporting systems - soil, water, climate and ecosystem services. The resilience of the farming system is important to local economies when faced with climate change, extreme weather events and pests and diseases. Management and conservation of soil, nutrients and water in a changing environment is important, therefore we welcome applications that:

  1. Improve agricultural performance and sustainability through enhancement of soil health by exploring soil-crop-microbe interactions, soil management techniques, nutrient and water balance and availability, and livestock-soil-forage interactions.
  2. Improve on farm efficiency (improved production) and long term sustainability (resilient production and minimised ecological impacts) through more effective resource use. Optimal use of nutrients and water to promote soil/crop/animal health and thus productivity in different agri-environments and management regimes. Consideration of human activity on land use and resultant environmental interactions, for example gender and cultural issues.
  3. Improve resilience of agricultural systems through increased understanding of the effects of multiple abiotic stresses (for example drought, flood, heat and cold, increased salinity and increased winds, soil erosion).
  4. Investigate appropriate policy governance interventions to make responses to abiotic stress more resilient.

The following research areas are outside the scope of this call:

  • Research that does not take an agri-systems and multi/interdisciplinary approach
  • Research focused primarily on breeding crops/ farmed animals, whereby the majority of the proposal is about genetic improvement, for example identification of traits and breeding for abiotic/biotic stress tolerance/resistance
  • Work done primarily in glasshouses or laboratories - a significant proportion of the work is expected to be field-based in the DAC-listed target country/countries
  • Development or refinement of precision agriculture and smart technologies. Precision technology can be included as long as it helps to address the DAC-listed countries challenge
  • Research focused primarily on zoonotic diseases.


To enhance livelihoods in developing countries, studies of agricultural systems must also take account of their broader social and cultural (particularly gender), economic and environmental contexts. While the proposed research must be predominantly within BBSRC's remit, and include a substantial element of investigative bioscience, some aspects of proposals under this call may appropriately span interfaces with the remits of other UKRI councils. Provided that it is closely integrated with other aspects of the project, up to 25% of the proposed research may be outside BBSRC’s remit.

Official Development Assistance

All research funded through this call will form part of the UK’s Official Development Assistance, as defined by the Development Assistance Committee of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).  Guidance on the definition and its interpretation is provided in the OECD ‘What is ODA? (PDF)’ fact sheet and the UKRI website: Official Development Assistance: Global Challenges Research Fund Guidance (PDF).

The ODA relevance of the planned research should be clearly evident throughout the proposal. Additional information about this can be found in the Guidance for Applicants. Please note: owing to the small number of proposals that will be supported through the call we strongly encourage applicants to consider the ODA relevance of their research, in particular the strength of developing country partnerships and how the project will work to alleviate poverty and promote welfare. Proposals which are not considered to be ODA compliant will be rejected without peer review.

Project scale and duration

Up to £8 million is available, subject to the quality of proposals received. Total requested costs should not exceed £1.5 million (at 100% of their full economic cost; see Eligible costs section in the Guidance for Applicants).

Information about the funding that may be requested is provided in the Guidance for Applicants, along with instructions on how costs should be entered in the Joint Electronic Submission (Je-S) system and, for DAC-listed countries, the additional Overseas Resource Requests spreadsheet. It is essential that applicants refer to the Guidance for Applicants to ensure that the correct documentation and information is submitted.

Funds can be requested for up to two years.

Projects must start on 1 April 2019 and are expected to be completed by 31 March 2021.


Applications will be rejected before peer review for proposals which:
  • are not predominantly within BBSRC’s remit
  • are outside the scope of the call
  • are not considered to be ODA compliant
  • request funding for ineligible individuals, organisations or costs (for example studentships/equipment - see the Guidance for Applicants
  • have not entered their costs correctly as per the Guidance for Applicants.


The call is open only to individuals and organisations normally eligible to apply to the UK Research Councils for research grants, see: UK Research and Innovation: Eligibility for funding.

Applications must be led by an eligible Principal Investigator in the UK.

As well as UK researchers normally eligible for BBSRC funding, applications may - and are expected to - (for this call only) include as Co-Investigators eligible “in-country” researchers based in any of the DAC-countries listed in the Downloads section. Full details of eligibility for this call are provided in the Guidance for applicants. Projects are expected to be co-designed and delivered in integrated and equitable partnerships between researchers in the UK and the target country/countries. They must be based on an existing UK-DAC-list country partnership, evidence of which should be provided.

How to apply

This call is closed to applications.

Applications must be submitted via the Je-S system by 19 September 2018, 16:00 BST.

A single application should be submitted by the research organisation of the UK PI on behalf of all participating organisations.

All applicants named on the Je-S form must be registered as users of the system well before the application is submitted. Please note that the Je-S registration process for overseas Co-Investigators takes up to three weeks, and applicants are advised to register as early as possible. Guidance on how to create an account is in the Je-S Helpdesk. Applications cannot be processed if this has not been done.

Full details of the submission process and documentation required are provided in the Guidance for Applicants. It is essential that applicants refer to the Guidance for Applicants to ensure that the correct documentation and information is submitted.


Call opens 9 July 2018
Webinar 16 July 2018
Application deadline 19 September 2018, 16:00 BST
Funding decisions January/ February 2019
Projects to start 1 April 2019


  1. The World Bank: Food security.
  2. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs/Population Division. World Population Prospects: key findings and advance tables, 2015 revision. 2015.


Kirsty Dougal or Jane Garrad
(use 'GCRF Agri-Systems 2018' in the subject line)

Related calls: agriculture animal welfare collaboration crops food GCRF livestock multidisciplinary partnerships