An update on a two-part IFSTAL training course held at Makerere University

Bring together 26 individuals drawn from university students, academics and professionals working across the food sector in Uganda and what do you have? The kernel of a powerful network to help tackle malnutrition in country in all its varied forms.

Equipping participants with the skills to become food systems thinkers was the aim of a two-part training course delivered by Interdisciplinary Food System Teaching and Learning’ programme (IFSTAL) in collaboration with Makerere University, Kampala.

Malnutrition is the new normal

Despite the emergence of food systems approaches to address food insecurity in the content of other SDGs, malnutrition in Africa is becoming the ‘new normal’. This is down to a lack of skills across the policy and practice workforce to tackle food system challenges in the necessary integrated manner.

Fixing systemic problems across the food sector while enhancing livelihoods needs interdisciplinary systems thinkers. The lack of sufficient food systems training – and hence skills in the workforce – is a major impediment. This is partly due to university curricula being ill-equipped to provide the necessary interdisciplinary food systems training for students who will move on into the food sector, and partly due to weak networking across the sector itself.

Creating skills for change

Generously supported with a grant from the Open Society Foundations, the course was planned in two parts. Part 1 held in January 2020, covered basic food systems approaches. Giving participants time to reflect on the first part in their work contexts, Part 2 was designed to follow three months later, covering system change and foresight. Covid-19 intervened, which meant Part 2 was delivered in late March 2020, exactly two years behind schedule.


Building on seminars on food systems dynamics and systems thinking, the course was highly interactive, with participants engaging in group exercises to develop skills as delivered in short introductory presentations.

Applied skills

Part 1 was very well received – as shown in the results of a post-course survey (Figure 1). Recognition of the importance of stakeholders and having the tools to integrate wider stakeholders into planning was valued by participants, as was the the style of training with its emphasis on participation and knowledge sharing. There was also clear demand for further understanding of food systems and systems approaches, a recognition of their importance of applicability, and the benefit of acquiring practical and useable methods.

When it came to the most useful elements, comments included “Understanding how to involve different stakeholders when proposing new strategies, e.g. stakeholder mapping”, “’Rich Pictures’ helped me to improve my understanding of complex problems”, and “Soft skills, such as communication, group dynamics, etc”.


Lasting impact

Part 2 training included SWOT analyses of current interventions to address food system issues, backcasting practice, and introduced foresight and scenarios methodology. Participants drew on their different areas of expertise and engaged in collaborative problem solving. They were also encouraged to engage in reflective discussion throughout on food system challenges and the methodologies shared in the training.

Two years on from the initial session, a survey conducted during Part 2 (Figure 2) provided information for a pedagogic analysis of Part 1, showing the lasting benefit to participants: “I have incorporated some ideas into the courses that I teach, and have also borrowed some ideas to feed into a research grant application”, “The whole idea of food systems has helped me in my service delivery which involves dealing with a lot of chemicals which affects the farmers, the environment, and the final consumers of the food” and “Proper planning and evaluation of my business goals through use of the swot analysis and back casting methods”.

Future activity

Despite the two-year delay, it was particularly pleasing that all but four of the Part 1 cohort returned for Part 2, supporting their Part 1 survey comments.

Deemed a success, the overall project has provided a clear indication of the demand for food systems thinking and practice among a varied group of academics and professionals. Further food systems training is planned in collaboration with RUFORUM and the Foresight4Food programme.

Dr John Ingram is the leader of the Food Systems Transformation Group at the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford.

Figure 1: Likert Scores from Survey Results January 2020

Figure 2: Pedagogic Survey Results March 2022

On scale of 1-5, 5 being greatly, how much do you think systems thinking has changed the way you think about food systems?

Figure 2

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By Jim Woodhill, Ken Giller and John Thompson

The final eDialogue in our five-part series on the ‘What Future for Small-Scale Farming?’ finished off by exploring policy implications for the inclusive transformation of small-scale agriculture in challenging times.

A stellar panel of experts from five continents brought a rich and insightful set of perspectives to the table.

We asked: “Is a fundamental shift in incentives and policies needed to tackle the ongoing issues of poverty and malnutrition facing rural-households who farm, and to align small-scale agriculture with the goals of a transformed food system? If so, how might such shifts be brought about?”

Rhetorical questions perhaps, but it was enlightening to hear from a group of highly knowledgeable panellists that profound shifts in policy are needed and that such change is possible, despite the difficulties. The need for new visions of policy goals, that take a much more integrated approach to food systems was a clear message.

It was also clear that policy does matter. Current incentive structures and market externalities are often driving food systems and the conditions for small-scale farming in the wrong direction. Past policy settings may have been appropriate for a staple crop-oriented approach to food security, prior to times of resource scarcity, climate change, the growing nutrition crisis, and more complex rural-urban interlinkages. Today, however, emerging challenges and future risks require a substantial policy rethink.

Against a backdrop of ‘progress’, too many people are being left behind: Given a set of mega-trends, we were encouraged to be optimistic about the future. Taking Africa for example, wage rates, education levels, health status, financial inclusion, access to mobile phones, and off-farm employment rates have all improved dramatically and appear to be heading in the right direction. However, this does not mean that specific groups aren’t being left behind or that there aren’t fundamental challenges in the food and farming sectors related to livelihood security, health and nutrition and the environment. These are very real challenges that affect large numbers of the most vulnerable male and female farmers, and farm workers, and they require substantial policy innovation. This wider positive development trajectory does though give hope for change. However, linking back to the theme of ‘recognising diversity’, what is possible is profoundly shaped by a country’s specific economic status and its particular political economic dynamics.

Recognising good public benefits: It was observed by the panel that farming and food is a largely a private sector activity. Yet, depending on the way food systems are functioning, the outcome can lead to huge public good benefits or costs. Basic, public investments in agricultural research and development, and in ensuring rural infrastructures such as roads and communication along with the right incentive mix for good health and environmental protection are foundations for society to reap benefits rather than costs from the ways we produce and consume food. Deeper discussions about public costs and benefits, both in the short and longer-term and how they link to market failures and incentive structures is a critical starting point, for the transformations that are increasingly recognised as necessary.

Working backwards from a new vision for food systems and rural economies: Arguably, policies related to small-scale farming have focused too narrowly on immediate issues rather than longer-term visions for change. The food systems agenda creates an opportunity to rethink small-scale farming within a wider context of creating visions and transformation pathways for food systems that are oriented towards improved livelihoods, good nutrition, environmental sustainability, and that are economically inclusive. This ties into utilising what will be substantial growth in the value of both domestic and regional food markets to help drive wider rural economic development. But all this requires longer-term and more integrated and dynamic policy thinking that works back from these visions of possible ‘food futures’ to the policies, practices and programmes that are needed to guide the transformation. At the same time, the risk and uncertainty of such complex and dynamic socio-technical systems must be recognised. Linear management and control approaches to policy are increasingly ineffective. Framed by a risk-based approach, our institutions and policies are often poorly equipped for our uncertain world.

An enabling pathway for ‘small food system entrepreneurs’: An underlying message was that the future for many small-scale producers will most likely not be as farmers, but rather as ‘small-scale food system entrepreneurs’, generating income and employment opportunities from diversified sources both on and off the farm. Policies are needed to support this entrepreneurial transition and capture the value from food markets to help drive wider rural economic development.

Responding to vulnerability: Future policies must prepare for and be able to effectively respond to the increasingly complex, intersecting social, economic, and environmental vulnerabilities faced by farmers and farm workers. COVID-19 has well illustrated the devastating impact of the pandemic on household incomes and their ability to purchase sufficient healthy food. The climate crisis is likely to dramatically increase the risks of droughts, natural disasters, disease outbreaks and even conflicts, all of which disproportionately impact on small-scale producers. This uncertain context with its overlapping short- and long-term shocks and stresses, presents a complex set of challenges for food and farming policy, demanding more adaptive, experimental, reflexive forms of governance and institutional arrangements.  This call for much more innovative forms of affordable insurance schemes and risk-oriented social protection.

Territorial innovation: Forget the notion of large cities and rural areas. Increasingly populations are spread across a vast number of towns and small- and medium-sized cities, creating vast peri-urban areas and stronger rural-urban connections. This creates tremendous opportunities for small-scale farmers, both in terms of new market linkages and value addition, but also in terms of off-farm employment opportunities that can complement farm income. However, at national and sub-national scales, tailored policies are needed to support such territorial development and the often unique conditions of different locales.

Land reform and inequality: Equitable land access and rights that balance the needs and interests of small-scale farmers with small-holder commercialisation and the development of larger-scale farming remains one of the most critical aspects of policy. Land policies have a profound influence on gender equality and empowerment, the rights and livelihoods and vulnerable groups, and investment by both small-scale farmers and larger operators. The world is seeing an increasing polarisation between consolidated large-scale agri-food sector investments and small-scale family farming which risks growing inequalities and difficulties in creating a more economically inclusive food system. Policymakers need to come to terms with the sort of land and investment policies that can better balance food system outcomes of health, equitable livelihood opportunities and environmental sustainability.

Cultural identity: Farming and rural lives are about peoples cultural identities. Policies need to be careful of instrumental approaches that ignore the cultural connections with land and the role that food plays in culture and identity. These factors also have a significant role to play in the decisions farmers take and the importance of land beyond pure economic returns. Empowering rural groups to express and strengthen cultural identities that help maintain social cohesion solidarity should not be overlooked.

Access to capital: Although access to land matters, equally important for many households is credit and longer-term investment funds. For all the talk of rural banks and micro-finance, most small farmers simply cannot get working capital. They rely on whatever they have as ready cash which often must be spent on pressing priorities, such as school fees, medical bills, and household consumption. Thus, many small farmers struggle to buy quality inputs or hire labour when they need it the most, and in the process forego yields they can ill-afford to miss.

Fundamentally perverse incentives: Our panellists left no doubt that past policy decisions that have resulted in a set of deeply perverse incentives, at both the global and domestic scales. Too often existing public expenditures drive towards the production of calorie-rich rather than nutrient-dense foods and put ‘band-aids’ on poverty rather than enabling the conditions for rural economic development. Current subsidies drive unsustainable use of natural resources or distort trade to the disadvantage of small-scale farmers. The extent to which small-scale farmers receive public support varies enormously among continents and countries. In South Asia, where public support to rural households is multi-layered, a wider view of how policies impact on food prices makes it clear that small-scale farmers are often ‘net taxpayers’. Essentially, they subsidise cheap food for consumers and value extraction by more powerful enterprises further along the food value chain.

Beyond “subsidies” to investing for the public good: Panellists stressed the point that the right kind of targeted subsidies can make a difference to agricultural productivity and livelihood security. While the pros and cons of input and price subsidies have been hotly debated over the past decade, a rethink around the language of subsidies is needed. Given market externalities, the huge public costs and risks of a failing food system, widespread rural poverty and inequality corrective public good investments are essential. These include for example creating incentive mechanisms to drive the demand for and production of a diversity of more nutritious food, incentives for good environmental practices, ensuring rural infrastructure, or improving social protection schemes, particularly in relation to risk. The challenge is to design so-called ‘smart’ subsidy programmes that have a significant impact on the availability of food and the improvement of household incomes in the short run while stimulating growth and rural development and increasing (or at least not suppressing) effective demand for and commercial distribution of inputs in the long run.

Political realities: No one should be naive about the political imperative of keeping food prices low and ensuring national food security. For a majority of people in low- and middle-income countries food is a large proportion of their expenditure and even slight rises in food prices can easily push them into a food deficient situation and dramatically impact on their ability to pay for other life needs. As was well seen in the 2008 food prices crisis, this has significant implications for social and political stability, something of which most governments are acutely aware. Further, many poor farming households are net purchasers of food. Consequently, governments are often very risk-averse in terms of changing policies that relate to food prices and food security. Further, the existing regimes of input and price subsidies have significant benefits for some, often influential, interest groups who bring their influence to bear in maintaining the status quo.

Practical realities: As one panellist highlighted, even with strong political will to reform food systems, incentive structures and how these impact on small-scale farmers, there are significant practical challenges. In general, more effective use of public investment requires effective targeting to the needs of specific communities and households in specific locations, often involving direct cash payments. However, many of those who need such support do not have bank accounts. There are huge data gaps in knowing who to target in what sort of ways and significant administrative challenges. This is one of the reasons more broad-based approaches are often used, despite the challenges of a distorting influence, poor targeting, and leakage of resources.

Mobilising political commitment for change: There is a tendency for people (and governments) to overplay the risks of doing something differently and underplay the risks of the status quo. Consequently, policy innovation and reform to drive the transformation of small-scale farming within a broader vision sustainable and socially-just food systems require four things: One, a clear perspective of the negative consequences of ‘business as usual’ that is understood not just by a small network of informed researchers and activists, but by political leaders of all stripes and wider society (after all, we are all consumers of the goods and services provided by our food system). Two, evidence that alternative pathways can work, based on sound research and detailed case studies documenting the emergence and persistence of ‘islands of innovation’ to provide ideas and inspiration for future policy and practice. Three, practical transition strategies to bring about change and which can balance out the interests of the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and ensure ‘no one is left behind’. Finally, sufficiently strong international and national coalitions for change from across government, business, civil society, and science are required. Global public goods need to be invested in helping to generate the data and evidence, and the informed processes of dialogue and coalition-building necessary for change. Such processes are needed from local to global in ways that help to link understanding of how issues connect across scales. Of critical importance is building national and local level capability for generating and synthesising data and supporting stakeholder and policy dialogue with foresight and scenario analysis.

Farmers voices: The fundamental importance of engaging farmers themselves, with all their diversity, in policy dialogue was underscored. This is vital for understanding what farmers are actually experiencing, hearing their ambitions and ensuring they are able to protect their interests. Inclusive processes of policy dialogue from local to global levels need support and investment.


Acknowledgement: This blog drew in particular from the comments and inputs of the panellists of the fifth session of the eDialogue and we are very thankful for their rich contribution to the discussion. The blog is the authors’ interpretation of the session and may not necessarily represent the overall perspective or specific opinions of the individual panellists.

Panellists: David Nabarro, Meike van Ginneken, Thomas Jayne, Elena Lazos Chavero, Rebbie Harawa, Ángela Panegos, and Avinash Kishore

By Jim Woodhill, Ken Giller and John Thompson

Tuesday 10 November was another fantastic session of our eDialogue series on ‘What Future for Small-Scale Farming?: Inclusive Transformation in Challenging Times’.

The panellists explored the complementary roles of commercialisation, food production for self-consumption and social protection in tackling farming household poverty and poor nutrition.

Now with four eDialogue sessions under our belt, a set of very thought-provoking perspectives are starting to crystallise. They have profound policy implications.

Achieving the SDGs hinges on transforming small-scale farming. Let’s step back to the fundamental issue. The world has an estimated 500 million small-scale farmers. In terms of rural households this represents a population of some 2.5 – 3 billion people – over a third of the world’s population. On the one hand, this group produces much of the food consumed in low- and middle-income countries. On the other, this group encompasses the majority of those who still live in extreme poverty and suffer hunger. A transformation of small-scale farming is fundamental to eradicating poverty and hunger, to feeding the world sustainably and well, and to tackling the climate crisis.

Small-scale farming households are very diverse. In thinking about this necessary transformation, our eDialogue panellists time and time again stressed the point that small-scale farmers are not a homogenous group. We often hear it said that there are no “one size fits all” solutions. We would go further and say that generalisations are not only misleading, they can be very dangerous and lead to ineffective policy directions and sub-optimal outcomes.

Gender dimensions are critical. In understanding household diversity, it is critical to understanding the roles and changing role of women. For example, as male members of households seek employment outside the farm, either locally or further afield, the women take on greater farming responsibilities, but often without commensurate decision-making power, access to finance and expertise and security of land tenure. Women’s and girls’ empowerment remains a critical element of any transformation strategy for small-scale farming.

Most small-scale farming households don’t just farm. It is vital to recognise that rural households who farm are not only farmers. Farming households have a diversity of income sources. Household members engage in a combination of farming, off-farm micro-enterprises, rural wage labour, and migrating to work in urban areas. Poorer households may also rely on various forms of social protection. A shift of perspective is needed from “small-scale farmers” to “rural households who also farm”, recognising that farming is often just one of several important income streams.

The number of small-scale farms are not declining as economies develop. There is another critical observation. In OECD countries, economic development during the 20th Century saw a very rapid decline in farm numbers and significant land consolidation. Although there is a trend towards consolidation of farms in some countries of East Asia, this is not happening in most low- and middle-income countries. In fact, in South Asia and Africa farm numbers are increasing and farm sizes are shrinking, while perhaps counter-intuitively in parallel there is also an increase in the number of medium-sized farms. Two factors are at play. First, increasing populations without commensurate employment opportunities create an increasing demand for land. Second, without employment security, social protection, health insurance or pension schemes, many people hang on to their land as security. This occurs even if the land area is very small and even when they have substantial off-farm income. This situation is also leading to forms of informal and temporary land leasing and consolidation, in ways that enable people to maintain their legal or customary title.

Most small-scale farmers can’t make a living from farming. Against this background, we need to understand the profitability of farming. The harsh reality is that for many farmers growing staple crops – or even traditional cash crops such as coffee and cocoa – on small areas of land it is hard to make a living, given the low productivity and current market prices. Production of low-value commodities on small parcels of land generates small, often negligible, surpluses that make it difficult for the household to cover the basic income requirements for daily living. Some crop sales by poor semi-subsistence households are, therefore, not sales of surplus, but so-called “distress sales” to meet immediate cash needs, even if the household then has to buy in quantities of the same crop a few months later – when prices are higher. This makes livelihood diversification essential. Very small-scale farmers who are unable to diversify their livelihoods remain the poorest and most malnourished group of people on the planet.

On its own, linking farmers to markets is not a solution. The last decades have seen a development ethos around the idea of linking farmers to markets and agricultural commercialisation as a core strategy for tackling rural poverty. On its own, this focus on ‘making markets work’ is not a solution for the complex challenges faced by a majority of small-scale farming households. There is a reality of how much can be produced on a given area of land. With the very small land holdings many farm families maintain, the numbers simply don’t add up for the many crops they grow and the prices they receive for their produce. It is not a question of investing in “sustainable intensification” to increase yields by 20, 50 or even 100 percent nor of improving prices by similar amounts. Most small-scale farmers would need a multifold increase in farm income to get anywhere close to a living income. Without doubt, connecting to markets is important, but only part of the issue. It is what can be earned from producing for markets from a given area of land combined with other sources of off-farm income that ultimately matters.

A Pareto Principle for small-scale farming? The economic value of growth in the food sector will be very substantial over the coming decades. This leads to the argument that there will be significant opportunities for small-scale farming households in agriculture. However, this assumption needs to be unpacked carefully. It is already clear that a small minority of larger, more viable small- and medium-scale farmers produce the bulk of food being consumed by urban populations. Future demands for food will be for high-value perishables and will have requirements for quality, safety, traceability and volumes of delivery which create substantial barriers for most small-scale producers. The degree to which future food demands will be inclusive and translate into viable futures for large numbers of more marginal, small-scale producers is questionable at best.

Food system opportunities beyond the farm. Growth in food demand can help to drive overall rural economic development and create a diversity of both on- and off-farm employment and enterprise opportunities. The pathway out of poverty for many small-scale farmers is most likely through diversified livelihood strategies where they become more integrated into off-farm economic activity and much greater levels of value addition. In the medium term, many will take up these opportunities while still doing some farming. The scale of off-farm food system employment opportunities along and beyond the value chain needs to be better understood. These are the places likely to create multiplier effects in the wider rural economy to drive structural transformation.

Don’t forget informal markets. While some supply chains are formalising, for the foreseeable future informal and semi-formal markets will dominate domestic food trade in most countries. They have supply networks that may stretch over great distances. At the consumption end, these systems meet the growing demand for prepared foods, with the role of women and youth being particularly important throughout. Optimising inclusive on and off-farm economic opportunities in these markets is essential for reducing rural household poverty. Policies need to be geared towards supporting more pluralistic arrangements, strengthening both informal and formal marketing channels to meet the growing demands of a diverse set of rural and urban consumers. At the same time, it is important to recognise that employment and trading conditions in the informal sector can be very exploitive, making it difficult for people to escape poverty and move towards a living income.

The need for holistic approaches. Tackling the poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition faced by many rural households whose livelihoods largely or partly depend on farming will require a multi-pronged and integrated approach. Strategies need to be targeted to the specific circumstances and needs of particular households and particular geographic locations. Broadly, four elements need to be integrated into a coordinated approach:

  1. Enabling inclusive commercialisation opportunities for those who have the potential for farming to be a viable element of their livelihood mix, with a particular focus on diversifying production systems to support more nutrient-rich diets.
  2. Optimising the potential for farming households to improve their nutrition and food security through what they can produce for self-consumption.
  3. Extending, targeting and innovating social protection to support those who are most vulnerable, to provide better risk management and insurance mechanisms and to support people to become economically active and self-reliant.
  4. Creating enabling conditions for farming households to diversify into off-farm income earning activities.

An enabling rural environment remains critical. Alongside initiatives that target the needs of individual households, there is also a need to put in place the public goods and services, including infrastructure, telecommunications, energy, education and health services, and sustained business investment and dynamic small and medium-scale enterprises which are needed to underpin the overall economic development of any rural area. Striving to create a vibrant rural environment where people actively choose to live – including young people – is key for the long-term future.

Getting the data. The eDialogue posited many observations about the trends and emerging opportunities and challenges for small-scale farmers. But the message was clear – the data does not exist to adequately understand what is happening locality by locality or country by country. There is a big gap in knowing who is on a pathway to greater prosperity and who is being left behind. Targeted and effective support strategies need to be based on a much more granular understanding of the livelihood strategies of diverse range of farming households and how their circumstances are changing. Investing in longitudinal, multi-sited, interdisciplinary research that can track livelihood trajectories over time and space and assess differential outcomes of various strategies and interventions will be essential if we are to fill those knowledge gaps.

Utilising digital potential. In all aspect of transforming small-scale farming digital solutions are seen as critical. This includes generating data, providing market information and access, payment systems, insurance, banking and finance, providing targeted social protection, and providing technical services. However, it must be stressed that these are not a panacea. They cannot replace, but only enhance other public and private services that are essential for creating and sustaining a vibrant rural economy.

Services to society. Rethinking the contribution of small-scale farmers. Instead of looking at the plight of small-scale farmers as a problem to be solved, what happens if we look at how small-scale farming can be part of the solution to a wider set of societal challenges? Four areas are key, providing a more nutrient-rich and diverse diet for society at large, providing eco-services that protect the environment, carbon sequestration through land use, and diversified and attractive rural livelihood options that help avoid large out-migrations (which put unmanageable pressures on urban areas and exacerbate the problems of cross-border migration).

Diversification – an underlying theme. Across the eDialogue series, diversification has become a common thread that has bound the panel discussion together. The diversity of farming households. The diversifying nature of household livelihoods. The need to diversify food production and marketing arrangements to meet nutritional needs. The diverse ways in which small-scale farming can contribute to society’s needs. And the need for a diverse yet integrated set of support measures to enable a socially just, environmentally sustainable, nutritionally smart and a resilient transformation of small-scale farming.

Acknowledgment. This blog draws on the views and perspectives offered by the eDialogue panellists (listed below) in the first fours sessions of the eDialogue and we thank them very much for their inputs and insights.  The conclusions in this blog are those of the authors and may not necessarily be those of the panellists.

Panellists: Gilbert Houngbo, Jemimah Njuki, Milu Muyanga, Julio Berdegue, Avinash Kishore, Irene Annor Frempong, Theresa Ampadu-Boakye, Ajay Vir Jakhar, Kofi Takyi Asante, Regis Chikowo, Audax Rukonge, Hannington Odame, Steve Wiggins, Heitor Mancini Teixeira, Milena Umana, Claus Reiner, Maija Peltola, Alejandra Arce, Abdelbagi M Ismail, Aida Isinika, Martin T Muchero, Cyriaque Hakizimana, Adebayo Aromolaran, Aditi Mukherji, Sudha Narayana, Mekhala Krishnamurthy, Jeevika Weerahewa, Mamata Pradhan, Ranjitha Puskur, Grahame Dixie, Fabrizio Bresciani, Andrew Powell, Marlene Ramirez, Irish Baguilat, Tran Cong Than, Mario Herrero, Fábio Veras, Namukolo Covic, Felix Kwame Yeboah, Iris van der Velden, and Clara Colina.


Our first online session of this eDialogue began by “Setting the Scene” with a range of global and regional perspectives, and in the second session we heard more “Local Perspectives on Small-Scale Farming”, with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa. These vlogs are largely contributed by researchers, but a few farmers have shared their ideas and we’d love to hear from many more people so we encourage you to submit vlogs to us.

What we have heard to date only scratches the surface of the huge diversity of smallholder farming systems around the world. This is not surprising given that the best estimates are that there are more than 500 million small-scale farmers worldwide! Reflecting on what we have heard so far, what can we learn? For a start – small-scale farmers are key to both local and global food and nutrition security, and to rural livelihoods throughout the world. Second – generalisations are dangerous! All of us are influenced by our own experiences and examples. The huge diversity among what are termed small-scale farmers manifests itself not only in terms of differences among continents and regions, but also within countries and, the deeper we look, even within each village.

When thinking about the future of small-scale farming, we hear highly optimistic voices with some wonderful examples of individual farmers and farmer groups and cooperatives who are carving out their own future through farming. At the same time we recognise there are major challenges faced by small-scale farmers, not least due to the continual pressure to drive down food prices globally. We certainly don’t have all the answers so we’re counting on hearing many more voices and perspectives in the coming sessions.

Two critical questions come to mind for me, which I’d like to share and hear your comments on:

  1. We realise that simply tweaking the current systems is not enough – and we are challenged through the SDGs to think about “transformation”. To be honest I find this really hard – as a scientist I am pretty good at unpacking why things don’t work – but not great at imagining new futures. What would this transformation look like? I discuss this in an article just published which I entitled the “Food Security Conundrum of sub-Saharan Africa”. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what sort of policies and actions could support a transformation of small-scale farming on Africa.
  2. To what extent can successful models for rural development around small-scale agriculture in one part of the world be an inspiration for change and transformation elsewhere? It seems to me that the differences among continents – in terms of opportunities both within the agricultural sector, in terms of alternative employment beyond the farm, in terms of cultures and the general economy to name a few – are so different that we must be cautious in trying to transplant approaches from one place to another.

So there is plenty more to discuss – and in our next session we are planning a series of separate meetings for different regions to address some regional specificities. Then we will have a joint session to explore some of the similarities. This will hopefully provide guidance for our two sessions in November where we will think about transition pathways and then finally policies to support future transformations.

Please do join us! We need your input.

Critical Connections

COVID-19, Rural Poverty and Food System Risks

The last month has seen the world waking up to the full extent of the COVID-19 health and economic crisis.  From the storm of blogs, tweets and reports about COVID-19, I’ve been assessing what it all means for poor rural people and food systems. The consequences in low- and middle-income countries could be horrendous, if national governments and the global community do not adequately step up. Here’s a draft synthesis that I will keep updating, with some highlights below.

Urban workers who have lost their jobs are heading back to rural areas in droves, largely penniless. Remittances are plummeting. Local agricultural suppliers of seed and fertilizer are closing. And many agricultural labourers are no longer working. All the signs show risks for a cascading collapse of the critical web of economic connections that sustain the fragile livelihoods of poor rural people and small-scale farmers. The economic crisis will be compounded by health systems completely unable to cope.

How bad could it really get? COVID-19 is the world’s most extreme ‘black swan’ – unpredictable and high impact event – since the Second World War (or as Snowden describes a ‘black elephant’ as risks of a global pandemic have been an ‘elephant in the room’ for years). Last month, the IMF pulled no punches in how it presented the seriousness of what it now projects as a 3% contraction in the size of global GDP. The last time this happened in the US was during the Great Depression of the 1930s. One worst case scenario estimates nearly ½ a billion people will find themselves back in poverty with the SDGs pushed by back by decades. The WFP has already warned that the number of people suffering acute hunger could double by the end of the year. Much of the impacts will play out in rural areas.

The world is in totally uncharted territories with huge uncertainties about how both the health and economic consequences will pan out. So I took scenario thinking as the starting point.  In February and March a manageable disruption may have seemed a plausible scenario. But globally we now seem to be in an escalating crisis. Can a widespread collapse of key health, financial and food systems be avoided? What will escalate the crisis and what might nudge systems back towards safer territory? What contingencies exist to respond to worst-case scenarios?

Scenarios unfold differently for different households, businesses and countries at different moments. Each context has its own timeline. COVID-19 has shown it can affect anyone. But its impacts will be far from equal.  The poorest and most vulnerable people will be hit hardest by the fallout.

Fact: the majority of poor and extremely poor people can be found in rural areas. There are 736 million people still living in extreme poverty (US$ 1.90 or below) and most of these are in rural areas, and with over 26% of global population living on US$ 3.20 – again many in rural areas. In low-income countries, 67% of the population still live in rural areas and in middle-income countries it is 47%. That is about 3.2 billion people who are poor or on very low incomes living in rural areas! So, grasping the consequences of COVID-19 for rural areas and the responses needed is critical and urgent.

Mapping the consequences for the wellbeing of rural people (see Figure below) helps to take a systemic view to a possible suite of responses. My key takeaways include the following, with more details in the report.

  1. Impacts will play out across five dimensions: income, food and nutrition security, health, education, and the resilience to cope with current and future crises – with strong interactions between.
  2. The impacts on women and girls will be more severe, making them more vulnerable – a gender lens to any response is a must.
  3. Context changes everything. Huge differences in vulnerability exist between individuals, households and geographies. So, assessing these and integrating them into response measures can help prioritisation and targeting.
  4. Notwithstanding the need for an immediate response, now is also the time to start thinking of wider systemic consequences, potential exacerbating effects and how these can be mitigated or dampened.

Diving deeper into food systems and critical connections.  So far, food systems are holding up. The world is fortunate to have reasonable food stocks and the prospect of a good coming harvest season, with global food commodity prices stable. But cracks are appearing. A combination of physical distancing, large scale sickness, fear and economic turmoil could easily unravel the food systems of low- and middle-income countries.  What happens then?

Small-scale farmers still produce 70% of food consumed in low- and middle-income countries. This production is critical to feeding the exploding urban populations. If farmers are sick, have no money to buy farming inputs, or inputs are not available, they will not produce food.  If food systems unravel, food prices will rise, dramatically compounding the crisis for those who have lost income and make response measures ever more expensive and difficult.  People with low incomes spend most of it on food. Even small food price changes will have a dramatic impact on their wellbeing.

Unravelling of domestic food supply chains may put pressure on governments to impose export bans on food, which could rapidly escalate into a compounding global food price crisis. The 2008/2009 food price crisis illustrated how quickly this can happen, triggering riots and political instability in some countries.

There is a knife’s edge to be walked. Unwarranted fear that drives household or national food hoarding is the last thing the world needs. Rural communities and informal markets also can also be surprisingly resilient. But complacency about the risks to food systems could be a disastrous mistake.  Urgent measures are needed rapidly track what is unfolding and to safeguard food supplies, not least for those on low incomes.

Ten priority areas to guide action have emerged from key food, agriculture and rural development agencies and other commentators – the FAO, CFS High Level Panel of Experts,  IFAD, CGIAR, CFS and AGRA (see report for more detail):

  1. Protect the health of agriculture and food sector workers as part of a first line of response to contain the spread of the virus while protecting food production and distribution as an essential service.
  2. Maintain open trade to avoid a global food price crisis.
  3. Monitor, assess and communicate to enable early detection and rapid response to emerging food system blockages and food insecurity.
  4. Expand and optimise social protection to enable those who have lost income to still have access to food.
  5. Keep agricultural production and food supply chains functioning by making them the essential services they are.
  6. Maintain and expand food aid to ensure those affected by food insecurity are protected from hunger and malnutrition
  7. Support the liquidity of agri-food businesses and farmers to ensure they can keep employing workers and trading.
  8. Invest for recovery and systemic change by creating investment and employment programmes that enhance rural economies for the future and shift towards more sustainable and equitable models
  9. Enhance food system resilience, sustainability and nutritional outcomes to ensure that future shocks to food systems such as new pest and disease outbreaks or extreme weather events don’t create crisis upon crisis.
  10. Foster international cooperation and equitable development to ensure rural people and food systems don’t get overlooked in response measures, and that wealthier countries are fully aware of the global consequences of providing too little support too late.

The good news is that substantial initiatives by global institutions and national governments are emerging with massive mobilising efforts, alongside a sense of growing social solidarity as everyone learns to cope with the crisis.

However, the gap between the capacity and resources needed to protect poor rural people and food systems over both the short and longer run will be immense.  Profound shifts in perspectives, thinking and leadership will be needed to cope and recover.

Blog by Jim Woodhill – Foresight4Food Initiative Lead

Foresight and Scenarios in Times of COVID-19

COVID-19 is a deep disruption to human systems. The world is having to muddle through huge uncertainties about the consequences and longer-term impacts.  This requires ‘thinking the unthinkable’ and exploring ‘neglected nexuses’. A key issue is how food system recovery pathways might unfold, especially given the “Build Back Better” mantra now being voiced by many leading decision makers.

Even before the outbreak it was clear that a profound a transform of food systems is needed for good nutrition, inclusive development and environmental sustainability. This combined with major concerns about the resilience of food systems, particularly in the face of climate change, led the UN Secretary General to call for a Food Systems Summit in 2021.

The current economic and social crisis induced by COVID-19 underscores the critical need for food systems that are resilient to shocks (particularly given underlying stresses), and which in times of crisis can protect the welfare of all, especially poor and vulnerable food producers and consumers.  

Over the last months many assumptions and projections about poverty levels, nutrition, food trade, vulnerability of different groups and achievement of the SDGs have gone out the window. Scenarios of increased poverty and inequality are seeming far more likely. Updated perspectives, framing and insight are urgently needed. Leadership, decision making, and advocacy have a critical need for rapid “collective intelligence” gathering and synthesis about what is happening to food systems, emerging risks, opportunities, and the options for responding.

However, in these times of turbulence, uncertainty, novelty and ambiguity (TUNA), conventional data collection, modelling and analytical mechanisms are not enough.  They need to be be complemented by greater attention for existing scenarios and analysis that highlight the risks of global disruptions, and by additional intelligence gathering to provide rapid and meaningful insights into what post COVID-19 futures might look like.

This calls for sense making and decision processes appropriate to high levels of complexity and uncertainty. Such processes need to draw on human capabilities for perceiving, communicating and recognising complex patterns, which can be connected into networks for collective intelligence and adaptive responses. There is well developed theory and methodology to support such an approach.  In essence it involves:

  1. Creating heightened and rapid ‘situational awareness’ through sensing methods that ‘probe’ for critical changes in systems using peoples experience to judge what is important and significant, while using diverse perspectives and dissent to also detect ‘weak signals’.
  2. Sense making through opening up spaces for structured collective deliberation by actors with diverse backgrounds, experience, perspectives and interests, and making use of rapidly sourced coherently structured ‘narrative information’.
  3. Engaging stakeholders and decision makers in well informed scenario thinking about risks, opportunities and transformative pathways.
  4. Reconfiguring decision making and innovation through more inclusive and diverse forums that engage decision makers in processes built around principles of complexity analysis and scenario thinking.

Over the coming weeks Foresight4Food will be working with the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) to provide an online webinar series to help practitioners use foresight and scenario approaches to assess the potential impacts of COVID-19 on food and agriculture.

Blog by Jim Woodhill – Foresight4Food Initiative Lead

We’re pleased to release our report Farmers and food systems, what future for small-scale agriculture? (PDF: 10MB; opens in a new window)
Please note: the table in Box 1, page 13 was updated in August 2021 to reflect new information.

As we trundle through our supermarkets, or wander through an open market, looking for good deals we all to easily take for granted the food we purchase and the farmers who produce it. Most of what the world eats is produced by family farms and 90% of all farms are family run. These family farms vary from large commercial operations to tiny plots of land where producing enough to even feed the family is impossible.

With rapid urbanisation the pressure is on from consumers and governments for low food prices. The end result are low returns for most farmers, and most farm families are doing it tough.

It is critical to get our heads around the scale of the issue. Of the world’s approximately 560 million farms of <20 ha, 410 million or 72% are less than 1 ha, mostly in low- and middle-income countries. To make a living from 1 ha of land is not easy if not impossible.  Yet, taking a family size of five, the livelihoods of over two billion people are linked to farms of <1ha. Taking all small-scale farms below 20ha and rural labourers this number gets closer to three billion or 40% of the world’s population.

While huge strides have been made in tackling poverty and hunger on a wider scale, the one to two billion people being left behind at the very bottom of the economic pyramid, often with very poor nutritional status, are predominantly rural people linked to agriculture.

The report puts this challenge in a wider context of changing food systems. That food systems, over the last half century, have met the huge increased demand for food has been an astonishing achievement. However, we now face the downsides as recognition grows about how unhealthy, environmentally unsustainable and inequitable many of the ways we produce, distribute and consume food have become.

A profound transformation is needed in how food systems function and in small-scale agriculture. Drawing on latest data, the report assesses the state of small-scale agriculture and the implications of structural changes in food systems for their future. It provides a set of conceptual framings that can help to unpack the complex issues around small-scale agriculture, highlight where more data and understanding is needed, and provides a reference point for debate.

Moving forward will require a much better country-level analysis of the structure of small-scale agriculture and rural poverty, coupled with long-term visions and strategies for transformation set within a wider food systems framework. Enhanced national level multi-stakeholder and cross-sector foresight and scenario processes, underpinned by better data, are needed to develop such visions and strategies. Ultimately, greater political commitment is required to bring about change. This calls for stronger and more influential coalitions for change, and greater public understanding and support.

Jim Woodhill

Saher Hasnain

Alison Griffith

“Food systems” has become the term around which issues of agriculture, nutrition and food security are now being framed.  But what is a food system?  Here I flesh out the details of the conceptual model we are using to underpin the work of Foresight4Food.

The attention to food systems is for good reason. The 2008 food price crisis sparked much concern over global food security. However, the concept of food security tended to be narrowly associated with ensuring people have access to enough food in terms of calories, leaving aside a much wider set of food issues. We now more clearly recognise the “triple-burden” of malnutrition that involves under-nutrition, micronutrient deficiencies and overnutrition. Globally we have an unhealthy imbalance between producing and consuming too much calorie-dense food and not enough nutrient-rich food.  The alarming increase in numbers of overweight and obese people, and the associated rise in rates of non-communicable diseases is one of the consequences. Meanwhile, food production is a major contributor to green-house gases, biodiversity loss, and natural resource degradation, yet despite this pressure on limited resources, it is estimated that a third of food is lost or wasted. These are interlinked problems requiring systemic solutions and a transformation in how our food systems operate.

Let’s back up a moment and consider what we mean by a system. Using classic systems thinking, a system consists of a set of interacting components that transform inputs into outputs/outcomes. A system has a boundary that distinguishes it from the environment in which it operates. Feedback loops between the internal components (sub-systems) and between the system and its wider environment underpin how the system behaves and evolves. Food systems involve the interplay of human and natural systems and as such are complex adaptive systems. This means they have high degrees of complexity, uncertainty and adaptiveness and may evolve in ways that cannot be entirely predicted and controlled through human endeavour.

In developing a systems conceptual model, it is important to remember that it is a simplified tool to help understand and visualise complex sets of relationships. How the conceptual model is constructed depends on human perspectives. Different people or groups may construct different models, and the models’ design is dictated by the question(s) it aims to help address. Such a model is a human construct to aid understanding, and is not a model of “reality”.

As illustrated in the diagram, a set of food system activities are at the core of the food system. These are undertaken by different actors, from primary production, to processing, retailing and consuming along with storage and disposal. In reality, food systems involve multiple interacting value chains. To function, these require a broad set of supporting services including, physical and market infrastructure, transport, financial services, information, and technology. The incentives and operating conditions for the actors are influenced by the institutional environment of policies, rules, and regulations (e.g. food safety and quality, financial, taxation, environment etc.), consumer preferences and social norms (see Woodhill 2010 and 2008).  Together these institutions create the formal and informal “rules of the game” that govern how the food system functions.

The food system operates within a wider context of human systems and natural systems with multiple interactions and feedback loops between these systems. These wider systems create a set of external drivers and their trends that shape the behaviour and evolution of the food system, though each actor in the system will be influenced, and thus react, differently. Drivers include population, wealth, consumption preferences, technological developments, markets, environmental factors and politics. The outcomes of food systems function can be categorised into three main areas: economic and social well-being, food and nutrition security, and environmental sustainability. Fundamental to the systems model is the recognition that food system activities, from farming to eating, are undertaken by actors who have differing interests, influence, power and perspectives.

This model of the food system integrates work by Ericksen (2007), Ingram and Zurek (2018) with the market systems thinking of the Making Markets Work for the Poor (M4P) approach (Springfield 2015). Other food systems models and frameworks include the highly detailed model of ShiftN (2009) , the CGIAR CIAT model and recent framework by Wageningen University and Research (van Berkum et al (2018).

A food systems model, such as this, provides the basis for understanding and exploring the critical relations, trends, and trade-offs that will underpin any desired transformation of how the system works.  For example, indicators for the three outcomes enable an assessment of whether food systems are functioning in desirable or undesirable ways relative to wider societal and environmental objectives. The drivers enable an understanding of the pressures acting on food systems and influencing how they are changing (with these drivers in turn being influenced by the outcomes). The Foresight4Food Beta Data Portrait provides a synthesis of key trends for these food system drivers and outcomes.

Of critical importance is understanding how institutions shape the way the food system behaves and delivers more or less benefits to different actors in the system and the environment. Transforming food systems is largely about institutional innovations to redesign incentive structures, in particular to tackle the market externalities related to negative impacts on human health and the environment. Given the inevitable trade-offs and impacts on vested interests, this is inevitably a highly political exercise which has to play out in a highly value-laden, contested space.

Blog by Jim Woodhill – Foresight4Food Initiative Lead

18 December 2019

Reflections on Stockholm EAT Forum

Foresight4Food at EAT Forum

The EAT Forum is undoubtedly an event with a difference. I certainly came away inspired, armed with a big pile of business cards from great side discussions that generated a feast of ideas for follow up.

The diversity of 1000 delegates who descended on Stockholm was fabulous, chefs, community activists, philanthropists, numerous businesses from large to small, start-up entrepreneurs, scientists, policy makers, NGO leaders, and staff from international agencies representing 80 different countries. Just the sort of mix you need to think more systemically about food – from farm to fork.

So where did it all land and what are the key takeaways? For me what came through was a powerful combination of crisis and hope. Presenter after presenter put the facts on the table about the dire state of our food systems in terms of poor nutrition, climate impacts, biodiversity loss, soil degradation and collapsing ocean ecosystems. At the same time everybody in the room had an inspiring story to tell of how they were working to make a difference.

This year the scene setting for the Forum was the launch earlier in the year of the EAT-Lancet Commission Report. This was a first attempt to put an integrated scientific analysis behind what the world, overall, should be eating for health and to stay with a safe operating space of planetary boundaries – “the healthy eating plate”. It has created huge media attention and really got people thinking – and talking!  Of course such a bold initiative has also generated a deal of criticism and misunderstanding (see here for an example of reporting on WHO links and here the Commission’s response). Clarity in underlying assumptions is critical, see here for example, a discussion about livestock sector impacts on climate and environment. At the Forum the authors were at pains to make clear the health eating plate this is not prescription for everyone and adaption to local circumstances and individual needs is essential. Certainly, the report has laid out a critical scientific benchmark against which ongoing discussions about what we should be eating can be had.

And yes, we were served meals that followed the EAT-Lancet principles – the food was great!

How do you get people to change what they eat? One takeaway from the forum was that pounding people with messages about what they should be eating – for the health and to care for the planet – is probably the wrong route. Instead, we need to focus on making sure healthy and sustainable food is really tasty, affordable and convenient – this is what needs to be marketed. It was great to hear how many chefs are now creating a whole new world of recipes that illustrate just how good “healthy eating plate” inspired food can taste.

I had a great a discussion in the Food Systems Dialogue session. We got stuck into the question of incentives for change and how to get a better regime of tax and subsidies that can internalise the massive environmental and health cost externalities of current food systems. An idea – for some pilot countries develop an example of what an economic transition to sustainable food systems might look like by redesigning taxes and subsidies and tackling trade-offs.

The theme of the true cost of food was picked up by Jeremy Oppenheim in presenting work of the Food and Land Use Coalition. Bottom line, based on preliminary assessments, from an estimated USD 8-10 billion food sector, taking account of the true costs of food related to disease, poor nutrition, climate, environment and poverty, we end up being out of pocket by USD 2.5 billion. Any business would be quickly broke!

Foresight4Food hosted two side events. One on futures thinking for food systems transformation (Click here for a background document, click here for a presentation on foresight and food systems change, and here for a presentation on food systems terminology) and the other on starting an initiative on the possible impacts of large-scale adoption of novel food sources – seaweed, algae, insects, cultured meat etc. (click here for an introduction to food systems thinking, and here for a presentation on the disruptive implications of technology). Much interest from both sessions so a good deal of follow-up now on the agenda for Foresight4Food.

There was great representation from around the world, however, it was also acknowledged that the EAT Forum can do more to connect with the realities of food issues in the developing South.

The importance of a food systems approach for tackling many of the Sustainable Development Goals has gained huge traction. A next step needs to be getting stuck into developing national level food system transition strategies that can break down the traditional silo-ed sectoral approach to policy formulation. This will require the sort of in-depth foresight and scenario processes that Foresight4Food seeks to encourage and support.

Blog by Jim Woodhill – Foresight4Food Initiative Lead

Food Systems Transformation

A “Rubik’s” Cube

I have just been at EAT Forum in Stockholm engaging in the debates about how to transform our food systems. It’s clear – the ways we are consuming and producing food is dramatically out of alignment with eating healthily, protecting the planet, and ensuring a fair livelihood for smaller-scale farmers and others working across the food system.

There is clearly no easy solution to the deep structural changes that will be needed. The discussions bounced around about who would drive change: consumer vs business vs government vs civil society. During a discussion I participated in during the Food Systems Dialogue side event the problem seemed very clear. Currently, the health and environmental costs of our food systems are largely market externalities. This creates very distorted incentives for both consumers and business. Internalising the true costs of food will require radical changes to the tax and subsidy regimes that have a big influence on how food is produced, marketed and consumed. But how to bring about such change?

This discussion brought be back to a framework for agri-food transformation I developed some years back (see here for a more detailed ideas paper). I refer to this three-dimensional model as the “Rubik’s cube” of agri-food transformation – reflecting the complexity of real-world change. Its purpose is to map out the different dimensions of innovation needed for food system change.

First, on the Y axis is the common-sense idea that we must take a complete value chain perspective from ‘farm to fork’, and understand the linkages between producing, processing, distributing, and consuming.

Second on the Z axis is the need for a combination of three types of innovation technological, institutional, and political. Changing incentives structures through tax or subsidies is an institutional innovation, but this will only be possible through political innovation in how decisions are made. Technological innovation, for example, can provide all sorts ways for smart monitoring that could enable effective implementation of such incentives.

The third dimension on the X axis is a “three P” process of innovation. The starting point needs to be people and their perspectives. Understanding why people see things the way they do and exploring their values, motivations, and interests is a foundation for then working towards shared visions and common commitments for action. Second, practical solutions to technical and social issues also need to be found – the prospects. These might be climate smart breeding so crops can grow better in times of drought, or apps that help people better manage their diet. Third, pathways are needed to put prospects into use at scale.

Too often our institutions work in isolated “stove pipe” ways, undermining the scope for more effective transformation. Science and policy don’t connect well enough, or we have wonderful technologies but not backed up by the institutional reform needed to deliver optimal social good. Agriculture and health get treated like isolated sectors with little connection between policy objectives. As an agricultural scientist, I reflect that historically a good deal of agriculture development focused largely on creating technical prospects for production – just one of the 27 domains in the ‘cube’ necessary for a more systemic approach to change.

As the EAT Forum highlighted, we now have a pretty good understanding of what the problems are with our current food systems. We know why this matters and have clear indications of the future risks we face. The challenge now is tackling the how of change. For this we are going to have to engage much more deeply in the questions of how change happens in complex systems and how to nudge toward more desirable rather than less desirable directions.

Foresight and scenario exercises, linked with the holistic approach outlined above, can engage stakeholders in asking “what would happen if”. This is potentially powerful way of contributing to the food system transformations that are so urgently needed. Foresight seeks to bring stakeholders into dialogue, supported by good visual information on trends, risks and emerging innovations to explore the future. This helps to create shared perspectives, pathways forward and the political will to act.

Blog by Jim Woodhill – Foresight4Food Initiative Lead

Bracing for the Future

Foresight & Scenario Analysis for Food Systems in South Asia

IFPRI-South Asia and ACIAR’s SDIP conducted a learning and professional development workshop for strengthening capacities on food systems foresight. The event brought together over 60 practitioners from Nepal, Bangladesh, and India in Kathmandu from the 11th-14th of February 2019. The workshop is part of a two-year foresight exercise focused on understanding the food system in the Eastern Gangetic Plain.

It also followed the launch of the Himalayan Monitoring and Assessment Programme’s (HIMAP) ‘The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment’. The Assessment addresses the key environmental and socio-economic pillars for sustainable development in the Hindu Kush and Himalaya regions. It is a comprehensive assessment of the current knowledge of the region and set the stage for the ‘Bracing for the Future’ event in Kathmandu with SDIP.

Some of the fastest growing economies in the region, Bangladesh, India, and Nepal offer new opportunities for transformative change in food systems. However, these are inter-linked with major challenges in the development of sustainable, equitable, and healthy food systems, and unpredictable drivers and uncertainties. Understanding these uncertainties and exploring the potential pathways for change need the collaborative involvement of all stakeholders, and a systems and foresight approach.

The four-day exercise had two primary goals: the first was to create and nurture greater collaboration between the regional partners, and the second was to start a collaborative process to identify the preferred and necessary transformative pathways needed to make the regional food system more sustainable, resilient, and better serving the needs of the population.

Organized around the food systems foresight framework of the Foresight4Food Initiative, the workshop was structured as follows:

  1. Day 1: Introduction to foresight and food systems for the EGP
  2. Day 2: Food systems and foresight methodology, modelling and data contributions
  3. Day 3: Mapping food system dynamics, and identifying and prioritizing drivers, trends, and uncertainties
  4. Day 4: Developing scenarios for food systems and identifying future collaborations and pathways of taking foresight forward in the region

The workshop objectives were achieved with a set of short informative presentations that synthesized the status of knowledge and participatory sessions on mapping food system dynamics and scenario-building exercises.  The participants were divided in to four location groups, with each group tasked with identifying a key area where foresight can be applied in their location, and how SDIP might be able to support a future exercise, and what steps might be needed to inform policy decisions.

Andrew Campbell, CEO for ACIAR highlighted the necessity of effective partnerships and ensuring the integration of foresight with wider food systems efforts for achieving sustainability, equitability and health for the future. These would remain a running theme throughout the workshop. Professor Prabhu Pingali set the foundation for the workshop by presenting the evidence on crop productivity, poverty, health, urbanization, and the regional nuances in South Asia. The role and importance of smallholder farmers and the middle-class in the region was emphasised, particularly in reference with transitioning value chains. Referring to the ‘Agriculture and Food Systems to 2050’ book published in 2018, Professor Pingali contextualized the importance of agricultural and food research for addressing the complex challenges the region and the world faces for the future. The presentation provided useful grounding for the rich picturing exercises for the day, where the participants developed a food systems map for their respective locations.

The importance of data was built on in Day 2 with an overview of key models and data sets that are commonly used in food systems, and an in depth analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of modelling. The IMPACT and APSIM models were used to discuss how models can be used more robustly and demystified terminology used in model-based data analysis. Other presentations examined the critical uncertainties around climate change, and presented examples where models have been used to inform decision-making in South Asia, specifically with the CCAFS project. These presentations were used to help the participants think of the data and modelling needs for addressing the food system challenges in their locations, and understanding the capabilities of models and existing data sets.

Key experts in the area led thematic sessions on the water, food, and energy nexus, women in food systems, agriculture, labour, migration, and livelihoods, and regional trade and markets. The outcomes from these groups were charted with causal loop diagrams to examine connections, reinforcing linkages, and dampening loops in the food systems. The scenario planning and visioning exercises built on these practical sessions to help the participants finalize their project briefs and identify preferable and plausible transformation pathways for the future.

The synthesis presentations and project briefs were discussed on Day 4, with each group presenting their ideas, the processes, data, and collaborations needed to achieve the, and their reflections on the foresight process. The event concluded with discussions on how the project ideas could be taken forward through the SDIP’s existing process, a reiteration of the value of foresight if it carried out with existing work in food systems, and a reflection on the necessity of collaboration in addressing the complex challenges that lie ahead.

Blog by Saher Hasnain – Research and Community of Practice Coordinator

Frogs in Hot Water! – The Risk to Food Systems and What to do

Insights from 12 reports on the future

“A diet for planetary health”, “1.5 degrees is too hot”, “business as usual is no longer an option” – these are headlines from three of a recent slew of 2018/19 reports on the future of our global food systems.

Let’s take stock of 12 of these reports and explore the common themes (here you can find a table summarising the reports). Judging by the number of reports and number of organisations waving a flag on the issue, there is clear anxiety about the future of our food systems (click here for a collection of key documents on food systems foresight from the past five years). Across the board, from science, business and government groups, the call is coming for a radical transformation of how our food systems function – with warnings that business as usual is not an option.

But there is also a paradox. The 2018 OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook predicts a gradual decline in commodity prices over the coming decade, with a return to prices seen in the early 2000s. Apparently, at least for the medium term the risks of high and fluctuating food prices have abated. One might imagine that pressure on the food system would have the opposite effect. Further, a downward trend arguably provides little incentive for a shake-up of the system or for the sort of political attention the 2008 food price crisis created. So, what is going on?

Perhaps we are experiencing the boiling frog syndrome – if thrown into hot water a frog will jump out, but placed in cold water and warmed up slowly the frog does nothing and ends up cooked. So, are medium-term prices simply not signalling the inevitable longer-term changes? Two other aspects need consideration. One, commodity prices do not, at least in the short term, reflect the huge externalities related to resource use, climate and public health. Two, risks to food systems are connected as much, if not more, to sudden and unpredictable shocks (drought, natural disasters, disease outbreaks, food safety scares) which are not easily reflected in trend analysis.

Thinking about all this quickly puts us in the terrain of food systems thinking – the relationships between production, distribution and consumption; the linkages with ecological, economic, social, and political environments; and the way complex systems behave. Interestingly the global debate since the 2008 food price crisis has shifted from one of food security to one of food systems – for good reasons as articulated in the reports from over the last year or so. Elsevier’s SCOPUS shows a threefold increase in annual publications on food systems since 2008.

So what are these 12 reports telling us, beyond the need for a food systems transformation? Five big themes emerge. First, there is pretty much universal agreement that food systems are central to all of the Sustainable Development Goals and that food issues affect the entire world and not just those suffering hunger in the South.

Second, the really big shift over the last decade has been from a focus on producing enough calories to ensuring good nutrition. Basically, as so prominently highlighted by the recent EAT Lancet Report, the world is heading toward a major health crisis by producing and eating way too much energy rich food (processed carbohydrates and sugars) and producing and eating way too little nutrient rich food. The costs to individuals and society of the growing burden of non-communicable diseases caused by a triple burden of under-nutrition, over-nutrition and micronutrient deficiencies are phenomenal. Undernutrition and hunger remain stubborn problems still affecting some 800 million people.

The third big issue is around the natural resources that will be needed to feed nearly 10 billion by 2050 if everybody aspires to the sort of high animal protein diet currently enjoyed by the more affluent consumer. The consensus is that this would require 50-60% more production than today which would be largely unsustainable using current production methods. The inefficiency of our current resource use in that 30% or so of food is lost or wasted from production to consumption is also a key message across the reports. The report from the World Resources Institute in particular highlights the interconnection of projected increase in food demand and land use, and the implications for greenhouse gas emissions if business as usual activities continue.

The fourth issue and the joker in the pack is climate change. Any mitigation of climate change must involve change in food systems. Food systems contribute about 1/3 of all emissions, and significantly increasing the consumption of animal-based proteins will dramatically compound this. For most of the most densely populated and poor areas of the world, climate change is likely to reduce yields and increase extreme weather events – droughts and floods. But areas in Canada and Russia may be able to produce more grain, impacting global trade regimes. A confluence of climate change induced shocks to the food system (for example droughts in a number of locations combined with a disease outbreak), either locally or globally has the potential to radically disrupt food supply, an increasingly risky prospect as the world heads towards 70% urbanisation.

ICIMOD’s ‘Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment’ is a good example of what this means at a more granular level in a particular region. The report points out that about three billion people depend for their food on the river systems that start in the Hindu Kush Himalaya. The report concludes that even a 1.5 degree increase in temperature will have catastrophic consequences for the mountains and downstream users of water resources.

The fifth critical issue raised in the reports is equity. Poor people spend disproportionately more of their income on food so are highly affected by food prices and are often unable to afford more nutritious food. At the same time in low-income countries, up to 60% of the population still work in agriculture and in middle-income countries it is up to 40%. However most of these people are poor or extremely poor. In middle income countries there is also very substantial employment in food processing and food services, often as part of an informal economy.

The consensus on what needs to be done is actually pretty clear across all the reports –

  1. Shift towards healthy largely plant based diets,
  2. Dramatically reduce food loss and waste,
  3. Develop much more resource efficient and climate smart production systems that provide a wider diversity of healthy food, and
  4. Ensure food systems provide inclusive (fair) economic opportunities for as many people as possible.

How to make this happen is the challenge we now face.

Scenario thinking underpins a number of reports. Somewhat simplified, there are essentially three-story lines. A business as usual approach that leads down the path of the problems outlined above. A winner takes all (and isolationist) story line of how the wealthy and wealthy countries manage to improve their lot and insulate themselves from the problems afflicting the wider mass of humanity (at least initially). An inclusive and sustainable story line where there is success in implementing the four strategies outlined above. The ‘Land Use and Food Security in 2050: a narrow road’ for example, presents five scenarios on land use and food security, but concludes that only one is likely to meet food security demands for the future while making responsible choices in food systems transformation.

Technology clearly has a critical role to play, yet none of the reports espouse simple technological fixes. For example, the World Economic Forum Report on technology and innovation notes “transformation requires a holistic approach engaging all stakeholders employing a wide range of policy, investment, management and behavioural strategies”. However, there is clearly a broad technological menu that can be drawn on including bioengineering, big data, ICT, blockchains, precision agriculture, alternative proteins.

Warnings are also sounded about who has power and control over markets and technology in food systems and what this can mean for equitable and inclusive systems, to benefit the many rather than the few.

Where does all this leave us?  The “what” needs to be done seems pretty clear, as do the reasons “why”. Where there is still a huge gap is in the “how”. This means that foresight efforts now need to shift towards a much more detailed analysis of pathways forward and consequences of the different trade-offs that may be involved. This will require a much more detailed and context specific analysis. Such work will require both investment and coordination to avoided fragmented and duplicated efforts.  Foresight4Food has been established to help catalyse collaboration in this direction.

Blog by Jim Woodhill – Foresight4Food Secretariat Lead