Climatic Change

, Volume 120, Issue 1–2, pp 325–340 | Cite as

Uncertainty, ignorance and ambiguity in crop modelling for African agricultural adaptation

  • Stephen Whitfield


Drawing on social constructivist approaches to interpreting the generation of knowledge, particularly Stirling’s (Local Environ 4(2):111–135, 1999) schema of incomplete knowledge, this paper looks critically at climate-crop modelling, a research discipline of growing importance within African agricultural adaptation policy. A combination of interviews with climate and crop modellers, a meta-analysis survey of crop modelling conducted as part of the CGIAR’s Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) programme in 2010, and peer-reviewed crop and climate modelling literature are analysed. Using case studies from across the crop model production chain as illustrations it is argued that, whilst increases in investment and growth of the modelling endeavour are undoubtedly improving observational data and reducing ignorance, the future of agriculture remains uncertain and ambiguous. The expansion of methodological options, assumptions about system dynamics, and divergence in model outcomes is increasing the space and need for more deliberative approaches to modelling and policy making. Participatory and deliberative approaches to science-policy are advanced in response. The discussion highlights the problem that, uncertainty and ambiguity become hidden within the growing complexity of conventional climate and crop modelling science, as such, achieving the transparency and accessibility required to democratise climate impact assessments represents a significant challenge. Suggestions are made about how these challenges might be responded to within the climate-crop modelling community.


Crop Modelling Incomplete Knowledge Risk Governance Participatory Modelling African Agriculture 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


  1. Anselme B, Bousquet F et al (2010) Modelling of spatial dynamics and biodiversity conservation on Lure mountain (France). Environ Model Softw 25(11):1385–1398CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Barnett TP, Pierce DW, et al (2001) Detection of Anthropogenic Climate Change in the World’s Oceans. Science, 292(5515):270–274Google Scholar
  3. Brázdil R, Pfister C, et al (2005) Historical climatology in Europe—State of the art. Climate Change, 70:363–430Google Scholar
  4. Bulkeley H (2001) Governing climate change: the politics of risk society? Trans Inst Br Geogr 26(4):430–447CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Burgess J, Stirling A et al (2007) Deliberative mapping: a novel analytic-deliberative methodology to support contested science-policy decisions. Public Underst Sci 16(3):299–322CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Challinor A (2010) Regional-scale yield simulations using crop and climate models: assessing uncertainties, sensitivity to temperature and adaptation options. American Geophysical Union, Fall Meeting, Abstract No. GC34A-06Google Scholar
  7. Challinor AJ, Ewert F et al (2009) Crops and climate change: progress, trends, and challenges in simulating impacts and informing adaptation. J Exp Bot 60(10):2775–2789CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Challinor AJ, Simelton ES et al (2010) Increased crop failure due to climate change: assessing adaptation options using models and socio-economic data for wheat in China. Environ Res Lett 5:034012CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Conway D, Hanson C et al (2007) GCM simulations of the Indian Ocean dipole influence on East African rainfall: present and future. Geophys Res Lett 34(3), L03705CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. De Marchi B (2003) Public participation and risk governance. Sci Public Policy 30:171–176CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Deressa TT, Hassan RM, et al. (2009) Determinants of farmers’ choice of adaptation methods to climate change in the Nile Basin of Ethiopia. Global Environ Chang 19(2):248–255Google Scholar
  12. Dirmeyer PA (2000) Using a Global Soil Wetness Dataset to Improve Seasonal Climate Simulation. J Climate 13(16):2900–2922Google Scholar
  13. Ferretti MP, Pavone V (2009) What do civil society organisations expect from participation in science? Lessons from Germany and Spain on the issue of GMOs. Sci Public Policy 36(4):287–299Google Scholar
  14. Fischer F (2000) Citizens, experts and the environment: the politics of local knowledge. Duke University Press, LondonGoogle Scholar
  15. Fischer G, Shah M, et al (2005) Socio-economic and climate change impacts on agriculture: an integrated assessment, 1990–2080. Phil Trans R Soc B 360(1463):2067–2083Google Scholar
  16. Fischer G, Velthuizen H, et al (2009) Potentially obtainable yields in the semi-arid tropics. Global Theme on Agroecosystems-Report (54)Google Scholar
  17. Heng KL, Hsiao T, et al. (2009) Validating the FAO AquaCrop Model for Irrigated and Water Deficient Field Maize. Agronomy Journal 101(3):488–498Google Scholar
  18. Huber-Sannwald E, Maestre FT et al (2006) Ecohydrological feedbacks and linkages associated with land degradation: a case study from Mexico. Hydrol Process 20(15):3395–3411CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Indeje M, Semazzi FHM et al (2000) ENSO signals in East African rainfall seasons. Int J Climatol 20(1):19–46CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. IPCC (2001) Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis. In: Houghton JT, Ding Y, DJ et al. (eds) Contribution of Working Group I to the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United KingdomGoogle Scholar
  21. Irwin A (2001) Constructing the scientific citizen: science and democracy in the biosciences. Public Underst Sci 10(1):1–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Jasanoff S (ed) (2004) States of knowledge: the co-production of science and social order. Routledge, LondonGoogle Scholar
  23. Jones PD, Osborn TJ, Briffa KR (2001) The Evolution of Climate over the Last Millennium. Science, 292(5517):662–667Google Scholar
  24. Kasperson RE, Renn O et al (1988) The social amplification of risk: a conceptual framework. Risk Anal 8(2):177–187CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Kuhn TS (1986) The structure of scientific revolutions. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  26. Lahsen M (2005) Seductive simulations? Uncertainty distribution around climate models. Soc Stud Sci 35:895CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Lambert SJ, Boer GJ (2001) CMIP1 evaluation and intercomparison of coupled climate models. Clim Dyn 17(2):83–106CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Le Treut H, Somerville R et al (2007) Historical overview of climate change. In: Solomon S, Qin D, Manning M et al (eds) Climate change 2007: the physical science basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge, United KingdomGoogle Scholar
  29. Leach M, Scoones I et al (eds) (2005) Science and citizens: globalization and the challenge of engagement. Zed Books, LondonGoogle Scholar
  30. Longino HE (1990) Science as social knowledge. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  31. Meehl GA, Boer GJ et al (2000) The coupled model intercomparison project (CMIP). Bull Am Meteorol Soc 81(2):313–318CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Nachtergaele FO (1999). From the soil map of the world to the digital global soil and terrain database: 1960–2002. In: Sumner ME (ed) Handbook of Soil Science. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FLGoogle Scholar
  33. Nakicenovic N, Alcamo J, et al. (2000) Special Report on Emissions Scenarios, Working Group III, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK,Google Scholar
  34. Nelson GC, Rosengrant MW, et al (2009) Climate change: impact on agriculture and costs of adaptation. Intl Food Policy Research InstGoogle Scholar
  35. Parry M (2004) Global impacts of climate change under the SRES scenarios. Glob Environ Chang 14(1):1CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Parry ML, Rosenzweig C, et al. (2004) Effects of climate change on global food production under SRES emissions and socio-economic scenarios. Glob Environ Chang 14(1):53–67Google Scholar
  37. Pawson R (2006) Evidence-based policy: a realist perspective. Sage Publications, LondonGoogle Scholar
  38. Pidgeon N, Fischhoff B (2011) The role of social and decision sciences in communicating uncertain climate risks. Nat Clim Chang 1(1):35–41CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Randall DA, Wood RA et al (2007) Cilmate models and their evaluation. In: Solomon S, Qin D, Manning M et al (eds) Climate change 2007: the physical science basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge, United KingdomGoogle Scholar
  40. Reed MS (2008) Stakeholder participation for environmental management: a literature review. Biol Conserv 141(10):2417–2431CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Renn O (1999) A model for an analytic-deliberative process in risk management. Environ Sci Technol 33(18):3049–3055CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Renn O (2008) Risk governance: coping with uncertainty in a complex world. Earthscan, LondonGoogle Scholar
  43. Renn O, Schweizer P-J (2009) Inclusive risk governance: concepts and application to environmental policy making. Environ Policy Gov 19(3):174–185CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Renn O, Burns WJ et al (2010) The social amplification of risk: theoretical foundations and empirical applications. J Soc Issues 48(4):137–160CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Robertson R, Nelson G et al (2012) Incorporating process based crop simulation models into global economic analyses. Am J Agric Econ 95(2):228–235Google Scholar
  46. Sacks WJ, Deryng D, et al. (2010) Crop planting dates: an analysis of global patterns. Global Ecol Biogeogr 19(5):607–620Google Scholar
  47. Sanchez PA, Ahamed S, et al (2009) Digital Soil Map of the World: Policy Forum. Science 325:680–681Google Scholar
  48. Schmidt M, Torgersen H et al (2008) SYNBIOSAFE e-conference: online community discussion on the societal aspects of synthetic biology. Syst Synth Biol 2(1):7–17CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Sellke P, Renn O (2010) Risk, society and environmental policy: risk governance in a complex world. In: Gross M, Heinrichs H (eds) Environmental sociology. Springer, Netherlands, pp 295–321CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Shackley S, Young P et al (1998) Uncertainty, complexity and concepts of good science in climate change modelling: are GCMs the best tools? Clim Chang 38(2):159–205CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Smith S (2000) Qualitative methods. In: Johnston R, Gregory D, Pratt G, Watts M (eds) The dictionary of human geography. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, pp 660–662Google Scholar
  52. Stern PC, Fineberg H (eds) (1996) Understanding Risk: Informing Decisions in a Democratic Society. National Academy Press, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  53. Stirling A (1999) The appraisal of sustainability: some problems and possible responses. Local Environ 4(2):111–135CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Swart R, Bernstein L et al (2009) Agreeing to disagree: uncertainty management in assessing climate change, impacts and responses by the IPCC. Clim Chang 92(1):1–29CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Tatsumi K, Yamashiki Y et al (2011) Estimation of potential changes in cereals production under climate change scenarios. Hydrol Process 25(17):2715–2725Google Scholar
  56. Taylor KE, Stouffer RJ et al (2012) An overview of CMIP5 and the experiment design. Bull Am Meteorol Soc 93(4):485CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Thornton PK, Jones PG et al (2009) Spatial variation of crop yield response to climate change in East Africa. Glob Environ Chang 19(1):54–65CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Thornton PK, Jones PG et al (2010) Adapting to climate change: agricultural system and household impacts in East Africa. Agric Syst 103(2):73–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Thornton PK, Jones PG, et al (2011) Agriculture and food systems in sub-Saharan Africa in a 4 C+ world. Phil. Trans. R. Soc A 369:117–136Google Scholar
  60. Thornton PK, Saka AR, et al (1995) Application of a Maize Crop Simulation Model in the Central Region of Malawi. Exp Agr 31(2):213–226Google Scholar
  61. Tingem M, Rivington M (2009) Adaptation for crop agriculture to climate in Cameroon: Turning on the heat. Mitig Adapt Strategy Glob Change 14:153–168Google Scholar
  62. Tsouvalis J, Seymour S et al (2000) Exploring knowledge-cultures: precision farming, yield mapping, and the expert—farmer interface. Environ Plan A 32(5):909–924CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Ummenhofer CC, Sen Gupta A et al (2009) Contributions of Indian Ocean sea surface temperatures to enhanced East African rainfall. J Clim 22(4):993–1013CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Van Vuuren D, Stehfest E, et al. (2011) RCP2.6: exploring the possibility to keep temperature increase below 2°C. Climatic Change 109:95–116Google Scholar
  65. Voinov A, Bousquet F (2010) Modelling with stakeholders. Environ Model Softw 25(11):1268–1281CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Webster M (2003) Communicating climate change uncertainty to policy-makers and the public. Clim Chang 61(1):1–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Weldon S (2004) “Public consent” or “scientific citizenship”? What counts as public participation in population based DNA collections? In: Tutton R, Corrigan O (eds) Socio-ethical issues in the collection and use of DNA. Routledge, London, pp 161–180Google Scholar
  68. Whitfield S (2012) Evidence-based agricultural policy in Africa: critical reflection on an emergent discourse. Outlook Agric 41(4):249–256CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Whitfield S, Reed M (2011) Participatory environmental assessment in drylands: introducing a new approach. J Arid Environ 77:1–10Google Scholar
  70. Williams AP, Funk C (2011) A westward extension of the warm pool leads to a westward extension of the Walker circulation, drying eastern Africa. Clim Dyn 37(11):2417–2435CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Wynne B (2006) Public engagement as a means of restoring public trust in science—hitting the notes, but missing the music? Public Health Genomics 9(3):211–220Google Scholar
  72. Wynne B, Shackley S (1994) Environmental models: truth machines or social heuristics. Globe 21:6–8Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Development StudiesBrightonUK
  2. 2.World Agroforestry CentreNairobiKenya

Personalised recommendations