Exploring the future of food systems in an uncertain present


by Keith Wiebe and Steven Prager | March 29, 2020

Today, perhaps more than at any time in our lifetimes, people around the world are dealing with deep uncertainty about both our individual and common futures. Every one of us is exploring this uncertainty through any number of different questions: How will the coronavirus affect my family, my community, and our world in the coming days, weeks, and months? How can we minimize our risks? What do we need to do to prepare?

Foresight is the process of considering alternative possible futures in order to prepare for them – as well as to shape them. Whether we are talking about COVID-19 or other challenges, and whether we are looking ahead days, years, or even decades, foresight involves asking questions, gathering information, and evaluating options, all of which can help us today make key decisions that - hopefully - improve tomorrow’s outcomes.

Foresight is something we do instinctively as humans, but the farther we look into the future, and the more complicated are the issues involved, the more we need to rely on careful analysis to inform our understanding. The future of food, health, and the environment are just such issues. Scientists from across CGIAR, a global research partnership for a food secure future, have been working together to explore alternative futures of food systems.

Much of this work draws on quantitative modeling tools – including climate, crop, water, and economic models – to examine how changes in climate, population, income, technology, and other factors influence future development outcomes. These models help us explore the future effects of different drivers on food production, diets, health, and the environment. Models complement a variety of other approaches that are also useful, including participatory scenario design, horizon scanning, and dialog with decision makers and other stakeholders. A combination of approaches allows for a mix of perspectives; this becomes ever more important the more complicated the issue.

In the agricultural research context, the results of foresight analysis can help farmers, policymakers, and other decision-makers weigh alternative strategies to address the challenges they face. For example, foresight results can help stakeholders evaluate the potential of different agricultural technologies and management practices to make agriculture more resilient to stresses resulting from climate change. Results can also help inform policies and investment decisions of governments and the private sector, including agricultural producers and consumers.

Proper implementation of foresight requires broad interaction among stakeholders. Analysis for analysis’ sake does little to inform decisions or influence potential outcomes. Working closely with stakeholders not only facilitates the incorporation of their specialized knowledge in the foresight analysis, it also fosters the likelihood of improved uptake of the results. For example, IFPRI has worked with national partners in Colombia, the Philippines, and South Africa to analyze alternative futures and inform policy choices for agriculture and climate change adaptation and mitigation in those countries. Similarly, CIAT worked closely with the World Bank in the development of a series of “Climate Smart Agriculture Investment Plans.” These plans use foresight as one in a series of both quantitative and qualitative analyses in order to facilitate design and selection of different agriculture investment packages in Mali and Ivory Coast, with similar plans for Burkina Faso and Ghana on the way. Finally, in an innovative collaboration, all 15 centers of CGIAR contributed to an analysis of alternative investment strategies that informed the CGIAR research portfolio for 2017-2022 as well as USAID’s Global Food Security Research Strategy, helping to safeguard resources allocated to agricultural research and development within Feed the Future programming. These and other examples of the outcomes of foresight work implemented with major support from the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM) are described in this recent review.

What makes those examples work? Although the contexts are varied, the answer is actually quite simple. A group of interested stakeholders believes that they are facing unprecedented challenges in development and is eager to understand how different types of investments and interventions may help solve those challenges. These stakeholders have decided that a structured understanding of a range of plausible futures adds value by informing their decision-making processes.

Where does this fit in relation to CGIAR and the fact that the research partnership is currently undergoing a dramatic transformation? The scientists that comprise CGIAR are keenly aware of the unprecedented challenges that we are collectively working to address in relation to global development. As one of the principle stakeholders in agriculture and increasingly broader aspects of development, CGIAR is well positioned to leverage foresight approaches (among others) to help understand, frame, assess, and even prioritize different development opportunities. Deliberate and systematic consideration of our role in shaping our collective future has the potential to help guide CGIAR toward better concentration of strategic engagement with the communities most in need of improved development outcomes.

Whether we are applying foresight to understand potential agriculture development outcomes over the long-term or how the coronavirus might be shaping our lives over the next few months, we can never be 100% certain about what the future holds. We can, however, carefully explore the available options to better understand the implications of alternative scenarios, and influence how we use our resources - money, mental energy, creativity, or time – to try and shape the future we would like to see.

Keith Wiebe is a Senior Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) where he leads a research program on Global Futures and Strategic Foresight. Steven Prager is a Principal Scientist for Integrated Modeling and Strategic Foresight, Decision and Policy Analysis, at the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT. At PIM, Keith and Steve co-lead a research cluster on Food Systems Futures within Flagship 1: Technological Innovation and Sustainable Intensification.

Photo: ©2009CIAT/NeilPalmer



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