Research highlight

Agriculture: Assessing the evidence for solutions to end hunger sustainably

Nature Machine Intelligence

October 13, 2020

Effective agricultural interventions that could aid efforts to find sustainable solutions for ending hunger are identified in eight articles published in Nature Food, Nature Plants and Nature Sustainability this week. Analysis by the Ceres2030 team of more than 500,000 published articles and grey literature materials using a machine-learning tool highlights key areas where further research is urgently needed and provides recommendations to help prioritize spending on agricultural interventions.

Globally, an additional 60 million people have been affected by hunger over the past five years, with as many as 130 million more people at risk as a result of COVID-19. Ending hunger, achieving food and nutrition security and promoting sustainable agriculture by 2030 represent the key objectives of United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 2 (SDG 2).

The Ceres2030 team, a multidisciplinary network of 78 researchers from 23 countries, report their findings in eight articles, summarizing current knowledge on key food system topics from farm-level interventions to investments in market systems to improve food storage and efforts to promote sustainability. The authors used a machine-learning model, described in a Perspective in Nature Machine Intelligence, to analyse over half a million academic papers and grey literature materials, and swiftly — within a week — and accurately determined the subset of articles to be selected for further study. Systematic reviews normally take 18 months to 3 years to complete, but the use of machine learning meant that the entire process was completed within months, making this approach timelier and thus useful for policymakers faced with all too immediate crises.

Among the key findings is that 76.7% of small-scale farms in low- and middle-income countries are located in water-scarce regions, but only one third of these have irrigation systems; potential solutions such as the use of livestock and digital technologies remain unassessed. The authors also find that farmers are more likely to adopt climate-resistant crops when provided with training and advisory services on how to manage such changes. Other effective interventions include membership of farmers’ organizations, which was linked with positive effects on income in 57% of cases, while employment levels and wages tend to increase with programmes that offer youth training in multiple skills.

“The ability to engage in informed, systematic and rational decision making will be essential in tackling the scourge of hunger,” argues a Nature Plants Editorial. “This is not only necessary and urgent but, as Ceres2030 has demonstrated, achievable.”

The collection also includes a Nature Plants Perspective that highlights potential evidence blind spots of SDG 2; an immersive Nature Feature on the impacts of COVID-19 on African food security; and an Editorial in Nature.

The collection will be available via the following link after the embargo has ended:

doi: 10.1038/s42256-020-00235-5

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