A dramatic and rapid transformation of food systems is necessary to end poverty and hunger, protect the environment, improve rural livelihoods, and ensure resilience to future shocks. This transformation must include structural changes in how our political, economic, social and technological systems function. Such transformative change requires a long-term perspective and understanding of the risks and opportunities in different possible food system futures – the purpose of foresight.

Foresight and Food Systems

Foresight offers one approach to support transformational change for a more equitable and sustainable global food system. It uses futures thinking and scenario analysis to help diverse food system actors (e.g., rural farmers, food manufacturers, small agri-food businesses, governments) imagine, together, how the future might unfold. Considering future scenarios enables possible risks and vulnerabilities to be understood and mitigated. It also enables opportunities for positive food systems transformation to be identified and explored. 

Foresight analysis helps to create understanding about how key trends and critical uncertainties (e.g., changing diets, climate impacts, demand for certain foods) could impact food systems. It supports preparedness for different possible futures.

Food systems are extremely complex, with all of the activities of food systems from production to consumption affecting global health and nutrition, environmental sustainability, and livelihoods and employment. Globally, agri-food work is the largest economic sector, employing over a quarter of the world’s workers. The scale alone of global food systems makes achieving change complicated and slow. Fear of the unknown, combined with vested interests of powerful food systems players, can bring resistance to innovation and change. This results in a lack of effective responses to already pressing issues. The challenge Is compounded by the difficulties of creating sufficient collective understanding and commitment among the highly diverse groups involved in food systems.

However, while change often seems slow and difficult, stuck or even regressing, there are endless positive examples of individuals, communities, groups and organisations working for more sustainable and equitable food systems. Especially when the life force of food is involved, people are deeply capable of innovation, creativity, social organisation and activism.

While foresight and scenario analysis is no panacea to the complex and overlapping issues within our food systems, it offers two critical contributions:

  1. Motivation and clarity for change by offering stakeholders a window into the future, through which they can see how their longer-term interests and aspirations would be affected by different future scenarios.
  2. Helping break down the barriers of vested interests by facilitating stakeholders to collectively explore options and pathways for change that can balance individual and common interests.

The Foresight4Food Approach

The Foresight4Food Initiative has developed a framework and process to guide foresight and scenario analysis for food systems change. The framework (Figure 1) links a participatory process of stakeholder engagement with a strong scientific evidence base and the use of computer-based modelling and visualisation. The approach starts by understanding how food system actors “see” the food system – their actions, values and interests – and their motivation for engaging in foresight. It maps out and examines how social, technical, economic, environmental and political (STEEP) factors interact within food systems, and how food systems are influenced by the power dynamics between actors.

Figure 1: A Framework for understanding foresight and scenario analysis for systems change

A food systems framing is critical to identify and assess key drivers, trends and uncertainties, to develop alternative future scenarios (Figure 2). The approach creates dialogue between stakeholders about their assumptions on how the future food system may unfold and what this implies for their visions and aspirations. The discussions that ensue provide a foundation for exploring what directions for food systems change would be in the collective interest and how trade-offs or synergies between the specific interests of different groups can be best managed. 

Figure 2: Using key trends and critical uncertainties to identify future scenarios

Central to this approach is the development and analysis of future food system scenarios, based on data about key trends and critical uncertainties. This is often the most challenging yet insightful part of the process. It takes various actors ‘outside the box’ to imagine how the future of food systems could be fundamentally different, with what implications.

A simple way to develop scenarios is to identify two independent critical uncertainties that then create a matrix of four different scenarios (Figure 3). For example, critical uncertainties in food systems could be dietary changes, climate impacts on agricultural production, malnutrition levels, market and trade functioning, and many others. Scenario story lines are then developed that outline what each of these four futures would be like, based on the two chosen uncertainties. ‘Back casting’ is used to look backwards from an imagined future scenario to construct the possible events and decisions that could have led to such a future.

The framework integrates four elements:

  1. A futures orientation that invites stakeholders to develop a longer-term perspective on how food systems may unfold in the future, and what decisions are needed today to avoid future risks and build resilience into our food systems.
  2. Ways of thinking about how change happens in food systems – by linking theories and schools of thought on complex systems, socio-technical transitions, wicked problems, anticipatory governance, cognition, and human bias.
  3. Practical methods from strategic foresight, scenario planning, multi-stakeholder processes, soft systems analysis, and theory of change.
  4. Participatory tools for analysis and group facilitation, which enable food system actors to collectively analyse situations and data, create scenarios, engage in dialogue and critical conversations, build trust, and generate pathways of action.
Figure 3: A scenario matrix based on two critical uncertainties

Rethinking Food System Change

Foresight4Food’s approach recognises that elements in the system (i.e., people and nature) interact in complex and adaptive ways; therefore, change in food systems does not occur in easily predicable or linear and hierarchically controlled ways. The complex nature of food systems deeply challenges reductionist mindsets that continue to dominate in public policy making and organisational management. Food systems thinking recognises that change happens through nudging systems, rapid experimentation and learning, and scaling niche innovations. It explores how locked in structures and power relations can be disrupted, yet recognises that building the foundations for desired change takes time, with the eventual outcomes and moments of change being uncertain.

Food systems transformation will require ongoing innovation and learning, with strong networks to obtain feedback and decentralised responsibilities for decision-making and action. Real changes in food systems will depend on shifting underlying structures related to power dynamics, relations between different actors, and the mental models of society, leaders and politicians. Foresight and scenario analysis can help to surface and examine these dimensions of change in a complex and adaptive food system. It is an approach to help generate the critical thinking, leadership and stakeholder engagement needed for food systems transformation. 

By Just Dengerink

Foresight training for Africa Foresight Academy by Foresight4Food researchers and Wageningen University & Research (WUR)

The Foresight4Food initiative aims to connect and inspire networks of foresight professionals around the world. In early July 2022, members of the Africa Foresight Academy participated in a foresight training at Oxford, provided by Foresight4Food researchers from the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute (ECI) in collaboration with Wageningen University & Research (WUR). The training was attended by five African researchers in person, while five others joined in online.

Jim Woodhill of the Foresight4Food Initiative with five African foresight and scenario experts: Abdulrazak Ibrahim, Fatunbi Aluwole, Karen Munoko, Kwaku Antwi and Baitsi Podisi.

The Foresight4Food ‘seven steps’ approach to scenario and foresight analysis (see illustration below) was used to develop four scenarios for a more climate-resilient Ghana in 2040. Here’s a look at how these scenarios were developed using the Foresight4Food approach in the training session.

Visualization of the Foresight4Food approach to participatory scenario and foresight analysis

Scoping the process and mapping the food system

The scenario exercise started with scoping and delineating the focus of the scenario process Collectively, it was decided to focus the scenarios on the future of the Ghana food system in 2040, and the resilience of this system to external shocks related to climate change.

Participants were invited to draw a ‘rich picture’ of the Ghana food system to map out its most important features. These included small-scale yam and cocoa production in the south, maize and sorghum production in the north, fisheries along the coast and around Lake Volta along with the role of urban informal food markets, the lack of a large food processing sector, Covid-19’s impact on supply chains, growing security threats in the region, and the effect of the war in Ukraine on fuel prices and availability of fertilizers.

Training participants drawing a rich picture of the Ghanaian food system

From assessing trends and uncertainties to constructing scenarios

Building upon the key features of the Ghana food system from the ‘rich picture’ exercise, participants were then invited to identify the most important trends and uncertainties affecting the Ghana food system.

Highlighted key trends included fast population growth and urbanization, increasing use of technology, growing dependence on food imports and remittances, decreasing occurrence of crop diseases, growing youth unemployment, and the increase in fast food consumption.

Together, the participants also identified some important uncertainties regarding the future of the Ghana food system: the degree of extreme weather events, the implementation efficiency of climate resilience policies, and the vulnerability of households to climate change. Other uncertainties identified included future access to fertilizers, fluctuations in fuel prices, changes in trade regimes, levels of agricultural productivity, the expected value of the Ghanaian currency, the potential influence of future Covid outbreaks and the impact of developments in the general security of the region.

The participants then decided on two key uncertainties that would be critical in determining the future climate resilience of the Ghanaian food system. Based on these two key uncertainties, a matrix was created with each of the axes representing one uncertainty. Within this matrix, four scenarios were constructed, based on their position on both axes and with input from the other uncertainties that were identified.

Four scenarios for the future climate resilience of the Ghanaian food system

Assessing implications, exploring system changes and designing pathways

With the four scenarios in place, participants were invited to give more colour to these four plausible futures by exploring the implications of each scenario for different stakeholder groups. One group explored the implications for rural farmers, while the other focused on urban consumers.

With the implications of each scenario explored in more detail, participants were asked to zoom out and think about the possible system changes that – in each scenario – could contribute to a more climate-resilient future of the Ghanaian food system. Suggestions included the stimulation of climate-smart agriculture practices, diversification of production and dietary patterns, strengthening regional trade, supporting home gardens and peri-urban agriculture and digitalization of supply chain management.

This three-day exercise with African foresight experts showed how the Foresight4Food approach can help structure a participatory foresight process that leads to engaging scenarios and actionable policy recommendations to shape the future of our food systems.