Food, climate, nutrition — the online tool influencing policy in Africa

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This article was first published on medium by the University of Leeds on October 15th 2021 and featured an interview with ReNAPRI’s Executive Director – Dr. Nalishebo Meebelo

How can a country in sub-Saharan Africa make sure its agriculture adapts to climate change, reduces greenhouse gas emissions and still increases production in a way that improves the diet and nutrition of its population?

Answering such a complex question is no simple matter — but a four-year, £9m, international research programme, funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund, has developed an innovative way to address the problem.

By combining computational modelling with specialist expertise, the GCRF-AFRICAP programme has created an online resource to help policymakers across the African continent access the evidence they need to plan future food production.

Andy Challinor, Professor of Climate Impacts at the University of Leeds, explains:

“Climate-smart agriculture improves nutrition but also mitigates against and adapts to climate change.

To develop it, you have to consider a range of factors such as how land is used, what crops or livestock are produced, the impact of climate change and international trading patterns.

There is never going to be just one path to follow, but rather a whole range of synergies or trade-offs to choose from, to decide a way forward.”

The iFEED (the integrated Future Estimator for Emissions and Diets) will help by combining modelling of climate change, crop yields, food production and greenhouse gas emissions with analysis of international trade and how well nutrition levels in the population are maintained.

This is being applied in four countries: Zambia, Tanzania, South Africa and Malawi.

iFEED draws on a huge amount of expertise and data from the AFRICAP (Agricultural and Food System Resilience: Increasing Capacity and Advising Policy) programme, which has been running in these countries over the last four years.

The process began with scenario planning workshops, which the programme ran with stakeholders from the agricultural and policy sectors — from farmers’ organisations to government ministries. Participants chose specific areas that are important for the sector in each country, such as technological innovation, land distribution or policy changes, and considered how they might play out in the future in the context of greater or lesser climate change.

This approach is one of the areas that makes AFRICAP different to other initiatives, according to Executive Director of the pan-African Regional Network of Agricultural Policy Research Institutes (ReNAPRI), Dr Nalishebo Meebelo. Dr Meebelo is the AFRICAP Regional Champion for iFEED, helping to promote the tool to policymakers across sub-Saharan Africa.

She says: “To develop policy, people tend to look at what’s happened in the past, what’s gone wrong — and right — and plan for the future on that basis.

“AFRICAP and iFEED, by contrast, are more forward-looking. They consider potential future scenarios and the policy pathways that can help to reach an end goal. This way of thinking is fascinating and can be really useful for policy makers.”

Members of the scenarios workshop held in Tanzania. Image courtesy of AFRICAP.

Next, the team took the scenarios as described by stakeholders and represented them using computational modelling of the food system.

An important feature of iFEED, however, is that it doesn’t just provide the usual outputs of computational modelling — graphs or numbers — which can be difficult for non-scientists to interpret. The team involved have translated these into words; in a format they call ‘calibrated statements’.

For example, iFEED provides projections of the impact of a hotter climate on the main staple crop produced in Malawi, maize. The calibrated statement gives the headline information: that unless new crop varieties can be developed, maize yields will most likely fall. The tool also details whether the statements can be made with high or low confidence, depending on the certainty of the data that underpins them. The detailed numbers are also available for more in-depth analysis.

iFEED also provides more detail on issues such as soil health, food toxins, crop diversification, seed systems, household incomes, water use and pests and diseases, by including the input of experts from each topic area and country.

This expertise is provided in further summarised statements, called ‘implication statements’ that are based on the calibrated statements to make it easy for policy makers to see the broader picture.

The calibrated statements on future maize yields in Malawi, for example, have led to the implication statements that detail how lower yields of maize will reduce household incomes and increase food insecurity, and may also prompt a move from maize to other staples such as cassava, rice or wheat.

The aim is to make iFEED a highly practical tool for policymakers as well as a resource for further research.

Policymakers will be able to use the outputs (available on the iFeed website to see how key crops will be affected under different climate change projections and the wider impacts. They can use this to help inform policy decisions. Although currently focused on the four countries involved in AFRICAP, the hope is that its insights will be useful beyond their borders as well.

Dr Meebelo says:

In the current digital age, everyone, including policymakers, expects to have information instantly available and to make decisions quickly — iFEED provides that opportunity.

iFEED allows policy makers to receive key messages in brief that are straightforward and easy for them to engage with immediately. They can also pass these briefs onto their experts to evaluate and confirm whether a chosen policy pathway meets their needs and context.

Dr Stewart Jennings, research fellow at the University of Leeds, says: “The models generate millions of outputs, from which the analysts have developed hundreds of calibrated statements and hundreds of implication statements. This combination of computational models and human expertise is what makes iFEED different.”

Dr Meebelo adds: “There is a continuing emphasis on the need to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and to implement the Paris Agreement. This requires us to move from ideas to action. By providing concrete policy pathways, and not just simplistic recommendations, iFEED is a useful and flexible tool that will help us deal with an unpredictable world.”

Visit the iFeed website