by Russell Cain and Andrew Challinor (University of Leeds)
December 14, 2023

National Dialogues for Food System Transformation Modelling

Modelling potential food system transformations and their impacts upon people, animals and the environment helps us understand which pathways of transformation might be best and what they might entail. Throughout October 2023, a series of national dialogues was held in Zambia, Tanzania, South Africa, and Malawi; asking FoSTA-Health stakeholders to tell us more about what those food transformation pathways and their futures might look like. We’d like to say a huge thank you to everyone involved as we now take this information to inform the modelling process.

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Food systems across southern Africa must transform to safeguard human, animal, and environmental health as they strain under the burden of environmental and socioeconomic pressures and demands. Holistic approaches such as One Health and systems thinking lend support to such transformations by recognising them as a series of coordinated, multi-sectoral, and collaborative changes made across a series of interconnected components and scales.  Mapping and modelling different possible food system transformations supports decision-making by allowing us to explore what their future synergies, inevitable trade-offs, and implications might look like. This in turn provides an evidence base for timely and actionable recommendations aimed at how to best improve human, environmental, and animal health.

Representative Transformation Pathways (RTPs) and the integrated Future Estimator for Emissions and Diets (iFEED)

FoSTA-Health implements this approach by bringing together and building the capacity of different communities, disciplines, and sectors throughout southern Africa. This is done by identifying and exploring different food system transformations and their implications for human, environmental, animal and socio-economic health. Central to this is the iFEED (integrated Future Estimator for Emissions and Diets) modelling framework ( iFEED integrates current insights and future expectations from FoSTA-Health researchers and stakeholders to model future outcomes and generate actionable and contextualised recommendations for policy and practice. As a wide variety of potential food system transformation pathways exist, FoSTA-Health focuses on 4 plausible yet distinct ‘representative transformation pathways’ (RTPs) for each of the four countries. These RTPs are defined according to what scientists and stakeholders consider to best represent current (‘business as usual’) trends and plausible future food system transformations. Stakeholder participation in this process means RTPs are not only based on objective analyses of large-scale trends but also contextualised in a scale-appropriate fashion by those closest to and most familiar with the food system.

Stakeholder insights and FoSTA-Health national dialogues

Stakeholders were invited to contribute to the development of their country’s RTPs as part of the national dialogues held throughout October.  They were introduced to RTPs and the process of building and exploring RTPs using the iFEED modelling framework to produce implication statements and policy guidelines. FoSTA-Health scientists also presented their research plans and explained how these would feed into this process. Thereafter a series of group exercises were conducted to allow stakeholders to discuss, develop, and voice ideas for food system transformation based on their position within the food system and conceptualisation of a One Health future. Exercises were conducted in breakout groups to ensure that everyone had a voice and that the wide variety of stakeholders attending each event was represented. Stakeholders discussed and answered questions on what key transformations they considered most important to achieving One Health in their country in the year 2050, and what obstacles, policies, and support they associated with these changes. Thereafter, a visioning exercise took place in which stakeholders created a newspaper front page of the future to help further develop their ideas, with presentations and plenary discussion thereafter.

Emerging themes

Themes emerging from all dialogues reflected core One Health principles, demonstrating a good understanding of the holistic, collaborative, and coordinated approach central to One Health food system transformations. Themes included the need for changed mindsets, increased political will, improved communication, cross-sectoral coordination, and cross-scale approaches. These key messages were highly conserved across intra and inter country contexts. Furthermore, regulation, implementation, enforcement, and action were key issues raised across all countries, with a common desire to drive social mobility and cohesion, local and national food and resource sovereignty. Food system control and expansion at the local scale was considered paramount, through equity, equality, economic development, outreach, education, and access to resources. There was, however, at the same time a recognition that compromise would be needed to achieve this, with the involvement of the private sector being required via private-public partnerships, co-venture  schemes (e.g. Nansanga Farm block in Zambia), and improved inputs. Caution was raised about the inevitable trade-offs that come with large multinational companies, government schemes, or middlemen, but the need for compromised and mixed practice and scale transformations was clear.  A huge amount of more specific information came from the dialogues, with a few examples from each country presented below:

Zambia National Dialogue, Chisamba, 7th October 2023

Stakeholders considered a key transformation towards One Health to be the diversification of crops towards indigenous fruit and vegetables to support structured, regulated, and diversified local markets having food quality standards. The need to change diets through education, challenging -yet respecting- cultural norms that drive unhealthy meat and fat consumption, and obesity was also considered to be of paramount importance. Also recognize was the need for education-- not only focusing on the benefits of a balanced diet but also on how to prepare indigenous foods. Participants stated that a 60% reduction in crop pests and disease is needed, with a focus on sustainability underpinned by the preservation, improvement, and systematic testing of soil health through national-level efforts. Increased pulses and soy production for local markets were also considered important, with pushes towards increased yields wherever possible.  It was also expressed that a 3-fold increase in average farm size, with a similar (5-fold) increase in grain production would be required to support nutrition and food security. Farmer-led seed systems were considered preferential over commercial alternatives as this was considered a way of protecting food and commercial sovereignty. Access to improved technologies, credit, and subsidies, with an increase (where practical) in the use of organic fertilisers, herbicides, and pesticides, was also considered important. There was a call for more gender inclusion across all sectors. Promotion of climate smart agriculture through local training and support was also considered a key transformative need, as was ensuring that systems were resilient against climate change and external shocks.

As participants visualized the newspaper front page of the future, some of the headlines that were envisioned were  “End hunger in Zambia”/ “Zambia exports 10 million tonnes of grain to the southern African region”/ “Hunger drops to single digits”/ “Zambia as a pioneer of grey agriculture”/ “Zambia in top spot as most regenerated land in the world”.

United Republic of Tanzania Dialogue,  Morogoro, 12-13th October 2023

In Tanzania, stakeholders expressed the need for increased crop diversification to support healthy and diversified diets, which should supplement rather than replace maize, while respecting social norms and historic staples.  Participants felt the best way to achieve this was through a national crop diversification plan that would coordinate the ptimizeation of crops on a regional basis to ptimize diversity and productivity at regional and national scales. It was also suggested that these aims should be extended by coordinating diversification with regional trade partners to optimally support bilateral international trade. The need to aggregate food production, storage, transport, and processing was also clear from the dialogues, with the necessary supporting role of the private sector being acknowledged. Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) education, practice and certification were also considered key to improving One Health, offering the opportunity to simultaneously improve the safety of domestic food, increase exports, and reduce food waste. Current SPS processes were considered unwieldy, uncoordinated, and inaccessible through poor infrastructure, training and communication, which in some cases lead to exploitation of the process by middlemen. Lastly, key policies and plans considered key to One Health included: i) the Blueprint to Regulatory Reforms to Improve the Business Environment; ii) Build a Better Tomorrow programme; iii) Agricultural Sector Development Programme Phase II, and iv) the East African Community vision 2050.

Headlines of the future included: “Tanzania the New Horticultural Export Hub”/ “Tanzania Triumphs in the Race Towards Inclusive and Sustainable Food Systems Transformation”/ “Tanzania Becomes Food Based for East and Southern Africa”

The Republic of South Africa, Pretoria, 19th of October 2023

Participants in the South African dialogues described the need for upscaling and expansion of Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) through the support (including education of the benefits of GAP) of local farms and sustainable (circular) economies in the form of improved access to technology, machinery, seeds, subsidies, and credit. The role of local markets driven by educated consumers who have the means to select diversified diets from safe food sources was also considered essential in supporting this transformation. Furthermore, stakeholders stated that the improved and streamlined regulation of Sanitary and Phyto Sanitary (SPS) practices was also required, not only for exports but also for local trade, to ensure a safe food supply. This would require accessible, equitable, and unbiased processes for accreditation to reduce rejection and post-harvest losses. Local solutions driven by local markets, education, and extension officers was a common theme throughout the discussion, with ground-up solutions centred around resource sharing being mentioned. Irrigation was considered a specialised and adaptive transformation that was most likely only achievable at industrial scales. Cohesive adaptation to climate change was also considered a key transformation, with the need for access to and coordination of adaptive crop varieties and planting dates being recognised. Again, the role of larger scale private investment and partnerships was considered an essential part of transforming food systems, but the need to do this in an equitable fashion was highlighted, so that the private sector is leading but not dominating. 

Malawi, Lilongwe, 23rd October 2023

Malawian stakeholders felt that smallholders should be empowered from the ground up to drive positive One Health outcomes.  There was consensus that smallholders will and should always have a key role in food production because they, unlike more commercially orientated schemes, always think about long-term sustainability. It was suggested that small-scale farmers should be helped to upscale,  to a size most appropriate  to participate in expansion of sustainable practices like Climate Smart Agriculture. It was felt that this would ensure the successful transition to mid-sized, sustainable farms, without sacrificing food sovereignty through monopolies where larger farms effectively export nutrition, and the population loses control over its food supply and environmental health.

It was, however, noted that “serious compromises and choices will be needed for transformation”, and that an equitable combination of mid and larger-scale commercial farms might best support One Health agricultural expansion, standards and processing through investments, centralisation of processes, and risk reduction, as the private sector alone would find such transformations too risky.

In addition to these recommendations, the need for improved yields through UHY and other crop varieties, and pest control was also considered crucial to reducing environmental pressures through increased productivity. Although affordable inputs were considered important, it was noted that the current Affordable Inputs Program is poorly regulated and exposed to manipulation.

Interestingly, indigenous crop varieties were mentioned to be more important than commercial climate-resistant ones. The key role of the Centre of Environmental Policy and Advocacy was also discussed, as were schemes focusing on intercropping, indigenous species, and leguminous fertilisers, such as CIFOR-ICRAF. Importantly, land availability was considered a huge barrier, with one stakeholder stating that approximately 3 times the amount of land is required  than is currently accessible, with gender imbalances in land access being considered critically lacking. Lastly, the need for a change in mindset over consumption patterns and what is considered ‘food’ was flagged as important, with one stakeholder recalling a phone call with their mother who exclaimed, “your uncle tells me you fed him *rice*?! Why do you have no food in the house?!”.

Next steps

Throughout all dialogues, the challenge in agreeing what constitutes an RTP was clear, as is typical of pathway development. It was great to hear stakeholders express a desire to build upon these exercises with further and more frequent dialogue. Indeed, FoSTA- Health national dialogues represent just the beginning of a process that will involve future meetings and discussions to refine further the RTP narratives, the mapping of their dynamics and leverage points of system change, modelling parameters, results, implication statements and policy documents. This will be achieved through further stakeholder meetings held throughout 2025, which will supplement and coordinate with a separate RTP working group comprising of FoSTA-Health representatives from each work package in the project. Lastly, newsletter will be circulated each month to update stakeholders and FoSTA-Health scientists as to how RTPs and their modelling is progressing.

Lastly, and most importantly, we want to thank everyone who took part in the dialogues – we look forward to seeing you next year as we finalise the RTP narratives and begin the modelling process!

Detailed reports of the stakeholder consultations can be downloaded from here

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