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Leeds scientists are exploring long term food security solutions



Blog by Professor Andy Challinor

The timely launch of the new UK-CGIAR Centre reflects, strengthens and widens longstanding collaborations at Leeds, with potential for cascading benefits to food systems in the global south, as well as food systems research in the UK.

This year, for the first time, forecast suggests that the global mean temperature increase, since pre-industrial times, may exceed 1.5 °C — the critical threshold identified by scientists globally and formalised as a limiting target of the Paris Agreement.

This presents a greater urgency to both mitigation efforts, to avoid further warming and damage, and adaptation efforts.

Nowhere is the challenge of dealing our changing climates greater than it is in Africa, where limited resources and a fundamental dependence on climate combine with the shear speed of change to highlight the absolute urgency of action. Even crops that are being bred now are at risk of being effectively outdated, in terms of their match to climate, by the time they are planted and harvested.

This challenge suggests a need to develop long-term approaches to food security, which is something the prime minister called for when he launched the new partnership between the UK and the CGIAR, the world’s largest global agricultural innovation network. “We need to harness the full power of science and technology to ensure supplies are resilient to threats like conflict, drought and floods,” he said at the launch event in late 2023.

So, can technology really save the day? As the philosopher Alan Watts noted on more than one occasion, getting carried away with our ability to fix problems can present problems of its own. In the field of climate services, co-production has long been held up as a more effective means of change than developing and disseminating technologies. This is where the strength of partnership with the CGIAR, with its decades of agricultural development in the countries that need it the most, holds the most promise — the combination of on-the-ground in-country research and development with technological advances made possible only through broader aims and investment.

The new UK-CGIAR centre is major milestone not only because of the promise it holds, but because it stands on the shoulders of many previous collaborations. The longstanding collaborations at Leeds, where one of the four inaugural UK-CGIAR projects is based, have laid the groundwork for some innovative and exciting science.

The new project is called iSPARK — innovation in Sustainability, Policy, Adaptation and Resilience in Kenya. Allow me to set out a brief personal perspective on the opportunity we are capitalising on. The crop-climate simulation model that kick-started my research, and which I published nearly exactly 20 years ago to the day, is being used less and less. I should add: this is true for what my research group affectionately calls its “Classic” form. Its newer forms rely on machine learning (ML) algorithms and in some cases satellite data. Just as ML is transforming weather forecasting, it is transforming food system research — and it is this transformation that is at the heart of iSPARK.

Juan Lucas Restrepo, Global Director of Partnerships and Advocacy, CGIAR, and Director General of the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), said:

Scientific innovation is central to tackling the linked problems of acute food shortages and climate changes. The iSPARK project will be generating new knowledge, insight and understanding and it will enable farmers, policymakers and investors to more rapidly roll out best agricultural practice not only across Kenya but wider Africa to reduce hunger and improve the incomes of rural people.

The funding from the new UK-CGIAR Centre for iSPARK is already strengthening and broadening links between Leeds and CGIAR scientists and practitioners. But the centre has potential for impact that goes beyond immediate links, and even beyond the direct positive impact for agriculture in Kenya that we are working towards. I see it as being a catalyst around which agricultural and food systems research in the UK can connect more deeply globally, to have greater impact and to co-produce new underpinning research across the natural and social sciences.

Featured image: Unsplash, Ali Mkumbwa

This article is republished from the Global Food and Environment Institute on Medium under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.