Humanitarian interventions often lag behind early warning of threats to food security. Variations in climate and conflict conditions are among the most important factors preceding disruptions tied to food system failures and malnutrition crises around the world. As co-author of a personal view published in The Lancet Planetary Health, NRI’s Professor Molly Brown explains how she is using existing data to get policymakers to take preventative action, before a humanitarian disaster unfolds.
We teach our children to regularly brush their teeth, rather than wait to treat the inevitable decay: it’s an effective preventative measure. I’m working on how to prevent famine by reading the signs early and by developing effective humanitarian programming anticipatory actions that are planned early enough so that nutrition impacts can be avoided. This makes sense not just on a humanitarian level, but on an economic level too. By working to prevent acute malnutrition before it begins in contexts prone to both climate and conflict shocks, we can transform research insights into action to create stronger communities.
Covid has disrupted a lot of agriculture value chains in Africa and a huge amount of US and European funding has been cancelled. There are a lot of African farmers who were relying on fertiliser subsidies and general aid, who will no longer receive it. Local fertiliser has gone up in price - four-fold in some countries – but that doesn’t mean that people are going to face starvation today. It means the crisis will come after their production begins to dwindle, which if no action is taken, is inevitably a year or more from now.
We can anticipate that. The question is, what can we do about it now? How can we avoid the impact in the future? Today’s systems are set up to respond to evidence that there are malnourished children. My argument is that if the systems were set up to prevent food insecurity, it would be more effective and more lives would be saved. I want to use data and models to set up low-cost, preventative, effective systems.
My research over the past five years has focused on climate, as well as conflict as they are both hugely destabilizing processes that threaten the supply of food for a population. Conflict and climate, if left unchecked, will create fragile states with hungry people, and that’s what my work is trying to prevent.
I’m fairly new to NRI, having joined in June 2020, right in the middle of the pandemic. I was lucky that I’d previously visited NRI in autumn 2019, as it’s hard enough in normal times to start a new job and not actually meet any new colleagues!
I have three main areas of expertise, the most relevant of which is research that uses climate data derived from satellites, together with demographic information on individuals. I take survey data from multiple sources like the Demographic Accounts Survey, the World Bank and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as all of them send out large teams to talk to individuals to determine the nutrition status and the diet, and the consumption levels of people all over the world. I bring together the individual-level data – tens and hundreds of thousands of observations, with the larger data, to come up with theoretical theories of the likely impact that extreme events will have on health.
I also have a great interest in improving our understanding of science communications, and finding better ways of communicating science to decision makers. I work on how to ‘socialise’ science and how to put data into the hands of decision makers. I’m able to continue to do this for the University of Maryland in the US as I’m on a shared contract with NRI.
My third area of research is satellite data and food prices, and at the moment I’m looking at the situation in Iran and the impact of food price inflation on household food consumption. Iran is a very significant place to study as it’s currently politically isolated and is operating under various international sanctions.
Publishing papers is a way to communicate with people that I don’t yet know, and I love it. It’s why I do this work, trying to influence people with words and change people’s lives through modelling and science and information, it’s what makes me tick.
Joining NRI is very exciting as it allows me to grow my network and engage with many people who have expertise in disciplines across so many areas. It’s an incredible organization in that it has entomologists, plant scientists, experts in food safety, climate change, international trade and pests – to name but a few – all under one roof, and I’m eagerly anticipating contributing positively to exciting projects here.
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