OUTCOMES OF AN OXFORD WORKSHOP FOR ADVANCING FOOD SYSTEM MODELLING

Steven Lord (University of Oxford), Joost Vervoort (University of Oxford)

TRANSMANGO aims to obtain a comprehensive picture of the effects of drivers on the European food system. The research focuses on the vulnerability and resilience of European food systems in a context of socio-economic, behavioural, technological, institutional and agro-ecological and climate change and aims to enhance understanding of the new challenges and opportunities that the food sector might face in the future. It seeks also to identify diverse high-potential practices that could contribute to transformation.

To aid this, TRANSMANGO sought to promote food system thinking and use or develop food system modelling techniques that could synthesise the many complex drivers into an understanding of the dynamics and change in current and future food systems. Researchers in the Food Systems Programme in the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford led this research.

Fuzzy Cognitive Mapping (FCM) was initially suggested for TRANSMANGO as a food systems modelling tool. The Oxford team began by reviewing FCM. The FCM technique was found to be highly flawed. Simpler but sound methods of casual mapping were used in TRANSMANGO workshops to indicate participant’s knowledge about theories of change, especially change through feedback cycles. Feedback cycles can identify change of concern where desirable properties such as food and nutrition security may rapidly and non-linearly spiral downward. Feedback cycles can also be identified or constructed as opportunities for rapid and self-reinforcing beneficial change.

However, causal mapping is unable to measure or project, even roughly, overall magnitudes or directions of change. It provides useful but, ultimately, limited understanding of the dynamics and change in current and future food systems.

The Food Systems Programme, within its general mission in the Environmental Change Institute and the Future of Food network at the University of Oxford, organised a workshop titled “Modelling food systems for resilient and sustainable nutrition and health on a changing planet”. The workshop was conducted in July 2016. It was, in part, designed to pursue TRANSMANGO research aims to advance and develop food system modelling techniques.

The workshop involved one introductory day and then three days of group discussions amongst 56 experts from over 20 disciplines that spanned food systems and quantitative and qualitative research.

Two particular aims were to identify and develop a sound participatory modelling technique that could do what FCM was originally put forward for, and improve the methodology connecting participatory generated qualitative scenarios with quantitative projections by computer models such as GLOBIOM.

As an outcome Bayes nets were identified as achieving, in a well-founded way, the food system modelling outcomes that FCM was originally intended to provide. Several new methods were developed for designing Bayes nets in participatory formats. Bayes nets have an emphasis on states and participatory designation of states and transitions. Combined with new ideas in food system semantics they could be used to create semi-standardised couplings with computer models of food systems. One particular method will be explored post-workshop within research work for WP4 of TRANSMANGO. The wider concept of a general food system language, inspired in part by the participatory methods and lessons learnt in TRANSMANGO workshops, was discussed at the workshop but has requirements for further development that are beyond the scope of the TRANSMANGO project.

Read the entire report: TRANSMANGO WP3 OXFORD FS WORKSHOP REPORT

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