How scientists are mixing modelling, data and expertise to feed Africa’s future

By Professor Andy Challinor, University of Leeds

As my career in research has progressed, and I have faced new challenges and had the odd moment of insight, my horizons have broadened. I imagine this is true of most careers.

In the beginning, others provided me with the research problems and suggested tools that could be used to address them. In response, and in partnership, I developed what might well have been the first regional-scale process-based computer simulation of how crops respond to weather and climate. That model, which is called GLAM, turned 15 last year. GLAM has been used across the globe and its simulations have contributed their very modest part to national and international assessments of the impacts of climate change.

Skip forward 15 years, and the modelling approaches that I contribute to reflect the challenges and insights I’ve encountered. I now see clearly how the piece of the puzzle that I felt naturally drawn towards is only meaningful when developed carefully as part of the bigger picture.

Models help combat climate change

So, what’s the bigger picture? At the start, it was all about how to predict crop yields ahead of the harvest, so that resources could be mobilized. Then, as the importance of climate change became ever clearer, the task became one of informing policy – what are the impacts of climate change and how can they be avoided? Providing this supporting evidence is a meaningful task, but still there is a step further: being an enabler of the changes that the research itself suggests.

The results from GLAM show that there are a diverse set of actions that can help us avoid the negative impacts of climate change on food: reducing greenhouse emissions, switching crop varieties, breeding new varieties with specific properties that keep pace with the changes we are all experiencing.

Researchers from elsewhere, including from partners of the Agricultural and Food-System Resilience: Increasing Capacity and Advising Policy (AFRICAP) programme, shows how changing the food that we eat toward less carbon-intensive options can also be a way of adapting to climate change.

The really good news is that the same changes that tend to reduce greenhouse gas emissions also tend to be healthier. However, dietary choices are contextual and may play out differently depending on the place or situation. Because there are numerous factors at play, it isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach – the choices that may be available to some or deemed ‘right’ in one area might not work for others, even within one country. 

This leads to the big question: how can national policies foster food production systems that are healthy for both people and our planet?

iFEED informs climate-resilient policy in Africa

Enter the integrated Future Estimator for Emissions and Diets (iFEED), which is at the heart of AFRICAP’s modelling approach. With iFEED we seek to develop integrated evidence for policy pathways that can deliver nutritious food that is low in emissions. This isn’t as simple as knowing what to grow and eat – it also means having an understanding of how agricultural trade operates. By combining different models – including GLAM – that look at various aspects of food and agricultural systems, we get a more holistic picture of what the future may look like.  

Combining models, however, is not enough. To ensure that we have the right inputs for the models, we have set up task forces in all four AFRICAP countries – Malawi, South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia –  comprised of local experts who have a deep understanding of the policy processes in their country. It’s a privilege to work with these experts towards a common goal. Not only do the task forces help us with accuracy, but it also sets up the pathways to influence regional and national policies using iFEED evidence.

We have also developed a wider team to engage with the model results, including experts in pests and diseases, policy, livestock, and climate extremes. To me, that is the most exciting thing about iFEED: we have a diverse range of experts to provide their input as part of this dynamic system, and they are integral and indispensable to the approach.

What we are building with iFEED is an entirely new approach to the use of the various models that we have developed and worked with for many years. Though there’s inevitably a steep learning curve and plenty of course correction ahead, this tool also presents exciting opportunities to make meaningful contributions to grand challenges posed at the nexus of climate change and food and nutrition security.

About the Author

Andy Challinor is a Professor of Climate Impacts in the School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds. His work focuses on using climate modelling and process studies to understand food production and food security; treatments of uncertainty and managing risk; and climate-resilient pathways and adaptation. For GCRF-AFRICAP, he leads the ‘Climate-Smart Development Pathways’ theme.