Examining the future of the sweet potato
Around 224 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are under-nourished. Sweet potato, a drought-resistant crop, is a staple food for many in this region of the world. These knobbly, orange root vegetables are also an important source of dietary Vitamin A, lack of which can cause blindness, lower immunity and impede growth. Any future shortages of sweet potatoes would clearly have a big effect on people’s health and living standards as well as economic development. But little is known about how this crop could be affected by climate change.
A team of Reading agriculture and environmental scientists led by the Walker Institute’s Professor Ros Cornforth are filling gaps in current knowledge by investigating the potential impact of climate change on sweet potato production.
Using ‘causal inference’ mathematical modelling and pre-existing data from a Walker project carried out in the Mukono district of Uganda, they have come up with ‘storylines’ for different future climate change scenarios. Each explains the possible impact on sweet potato production, for example waterlogging from floods or exposure to pests, and what can be done to make the crop more resilient to these risks.
The aim is to equip policymakers at local and national levels with a better understanding of factors impacting on sweet potato crop yields, backed up with scientific evidence, to help them with future agricultural planning decisions. This should strengthen adoption of policies that reduce global hunger – the second of the UN’s sustainable development goals.
IDAPS (Integrated Database for African policymakers), an open source platform for African policymakers developed by the Walker Institute in partnership with the NGO Evidence For Development, is enabling local users to create tailored scenarios and visualisations of how climate change might affect their own livelihoods in future. Poorer women in Africa stand to benefit particularly, as sweet potatoes – regarded as the ‘poor person’s food’ – are mainly grown by women on small garden plots.
Uganda is the leading producer of sweet potatoes in Africa and the focus of the Walker Institute’s ongoing research and policy work. But the project’s approach can be scaled up to national or regional levels, or scaled down to local households. It could also be extended to other crops or policy areas. In the long term, the research will result in better budget planning for crops able to withstand climate change and better health for Africa’s poorest people, transferring climate resilience research into relevant local action. It will transfer expertise through use of causal inference networks in policy planning, creating more flood-resilient infrastructure, and reducing economic damage from climate related shocks.
The work is aligned with the Walker Institute’s aims of enabling people and organisations to take the right action, in a proportionate way and at an early stage. It supports policies that help implement the Paris Agreement and the UN’s sustainable development goals.
The researchers are also working with Climate Action Network (Uganda) to share information generated by the project and to train community farmer champions in the production of sweet potato and in policy-influencing.