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  • Foresight studies: shaping the future for food security

The world's food security depends on the quality of the forward-looking agricultural studies we are carrying out today, says Mark Holderness.

Climate change, population growth and competing demands for land and resources are putting great pressure on the world's food systems. Smallholder farmers in the developing world, who produce much of the food for the poorest people, are threatened by devastating droughts and floods, food price spikes, and persistent poverty.

Scientific advances have greatly alleviated hunger and poverty. The introduction of higher yield crop varieties and better agricultural management practices have saved and improved millions of lives.

But the pace of change is accelerating — demanding greater, more urgent responses. Our population is set to reach nine billion by 2050. To feed them we will need to produce 70 per cent more food, and do so without destroying our environment.

We cannot respond only when crisis is upon us. Our actions must be forward-looking, reaching beyond short-term demands to longer-term impacts.

What kind of a world might we see in coming decades? And what kind of a world do we want to see in the next 20, 40, or 60 years?

Questions for the experts

These are the questions we must ask, and that hundreds of agricultural development experts and organisations addressed at the Second Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development (GCARD2) that took place in Punta del Este, Uruguay, this week (29 October–1 November).

On the agenda: a review of the trade-offs for tomorrow from decisions made today that will affect food systems for our future. What changes must occur, not only in practice and policy, but also in behaviours and attitudes, to ensure that the future is sustainable and provides a livelihood for smallholder famers?

Participants at GCARD2 were presented with the findings from more than 40 'foresight' studies to consider future scenarios and the key variables that could help or hinder the road to food security in developing regions, and globally.

To be classified as a foresight report, the research has to be less than five years old, and look at least ten years ahead.

For example, a report by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) explores regional future scenarios in East Africa. Government representatives, civil society, the private sector and researchers collaborated to identify which factors will most influence food security, environments and livelihoods up to 2030 and 2050.

The risk factors include the fragmented political states and whether the region takes an active or reactive attitude to food security, environments and livelihoods, revealing precisely where the work must be done.

How foresight works

Foresight reduces uncertainty and increases our long-term vision. The analysis constructs potential future scenarios, based on 'what if' simulations that reflect the results of different approaches and choices made.

The studies also collect the best available data on trends such as climate change, demographics, urbanisation and consumer demand, and examine trade-offs, for example in land use, investments, and policy priorities. They lay out alternative courses: active versus reactive policies, isolationism versus collective approaches, food security versus other development needs, among others.

Such analyses identify factors that are likely to lead to failure. They also identify the future scenarios we want to see, and trace back the decisions, investments and collaborations needed to get there.

Foresight brings in qualitative inputs and the views of multiple stakeholders. The most robust foresight scenarios are those that integrate the inputs of research analysts with those of farmers, civil society, decision-makers, and others who affect and are affected by agricultural development choices.

From the results of foresight studies analysed for GCARD2, we can anticipate that the main drivers of food production will be policies, power relations, institutions, economic forces and climate change. It is clear that if we do not ensure today that the voices of all stakeholders are included in setting priorities and translating plans into actions, some will be left behind.

Shaping the future

GCARD is a unique face-to-face forum for integrating viewpoints from diverse stakeholders, including smallholder farmers. We have reached out to everyone, from young agricultural researchers to senior policy leaders, and from local organisations to global ones. The aim is not to produce one universally applicable answer but to build better understanding of the implications of different agricultural choices for a broad spectrum of sectors.

The challenges we face for agricultural development, for our world's food security, and for the health of our planet are difficult and complex, and have the potential to change dramatically in the future. We cannot afford to limit ourselves to addressing the issues that already exist. We must act now and align  funding and policy discussions with future issues.

It is important that funding decisions are sustainable to deliver the long-term research that will create a food secure future.

It is impossible to predict what will happen in the long term. But it is possible to model what could happen. And with the judicious and inclusive use of that information, we can shape the future we do want to see: where livelihoods are improved, and the food security and sustainability of our planet prevail.

Mark Holderness is executive secretary of the Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR).