Fifteen to One | Tackling global challenges of food security

“Together, we can create a world where every person has enough to eat, where food systems are equitable and sustainable, and where the shared joy of a meal unites us all.”

Fifteen to One | Tackling global challenges of food security. October 2023

In advance of World Food Day on 16 October, we’re celebrating the collaborative and innovative approach researchers at Leeds are taking to develop resilient food systems for a healthier future. 

Find out about the contribution Dr Rebecca Sarku, Research Fellow in Climate Change and Food Systems in the Sustainability Research Institute at Leeds, has made to helping overcome global challenges in food security.

Discover why she dreamt of flying high as a child and how she now reaches the peak of happiness visiting the mountains of the world.

Can you describe your role in 100 words?

I’m a Research Fellow in Climate Change and Food Systems at the Sustainability Research Institute. 

My role enables me to collaborate with stakeholders across various scales of climate change, agriculture and food systems, contributing to transformative initiatives in the Global South. 

I also have a keen research interest in monitoring the political dynamics of climate change adaptation and agriculture within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This includes contributions to the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture and the ongoing UNFCCC’s Sharm El-Sheikh Climate Action on Agriculture and Food Security. 

When did you join the University?

I joined in January 2022. Before that I was a PhD Researcher at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. 

What impresses you most about Leeds?

Firstly its reputation as one of the UK’s foremost research-intensive institutions. Notably, the Sustainability Research Institute at Leeds boasts a team of seasoned researchers, and I felt it would provide an exceptional environment for cultivating a research career centred on sustainability, climate change, agriculture and food systems. 

What are the big global challenges around food security you’re interested in and how is your research helping to address them?

Some of the challenges include climate change, water security, food waste, poverty and inequality in the smallholder farming sector, limited access to the market and innovative technologies to improve food production, especially in the Global South.

I’m proud my work has directly contributed to enhancing the resilience and sustainability of agricultural systems, improving access to weather and climate information for farmers and fostering collaborations to address food security challenges. 

What’s your message for world leaders?

As a global community, we face interconnected crises, from climate change and biodiversity loss to water scarcity, drought and flooding, which affect food access, availability and affordability.

We must recognise the central role of food in our lives. Food is not merely sustenance; it’s a source of cultural identity, a driver of economic prosperity and a reflection of our shared humanity. However, it’s a sobering reality that millions worldwide still go to bed hungry while food systems strain under the weight of environmental degradation, inequality and global politics.

As we celebrate World Food Day, I urge world leaders to commit to taking bold and collective action. Together, we can create a world where every person has enough to eat, where food systems are equitable and sustainable, and where the shared joy of a meal unites us all.

What’s coming up that you’re most looking forward to working on?

Conference of the Parties (COP) 28. This will be my third time attending COP (although this year will be online), and I’m looking forward to discussions on new topics for the Sharm El-Sheikh Climate Action on Agriculture and Food Security. 

What do you wish people knew about your work/role?

The challenges confronting food security are numerous, however my research is focused on research outputs and engagements related to climate change and agriculture. This is crucial as climate change poses significant risks to food systems, especially in vulnerable regions like sub-Saharan Africa. 

We all have that professional or personal achievement we’re incredibly proud of – can you tell us yours?

Through my research in Ghana’s Coastal Savanna region, I led a collaborative project that integrated the local knowledge of famers (on daily and seasonal weather indicators) with scientifically generated forecasts.

This led to the development of innovative digital tools for farmers to forecast weather based on their local knowledge, the provision of smartphone training to farmers (resulting in broader smartphone use) and the expansion of these innovations to benefit farmers in Khulna, Bangladesh.

I’m also a proud recipient of numerous fellowships, such as the African Women in Agricultural Research Development (AWARD) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Funding for African researchers on Digital Technology, among others.   

What was your dream job as a child? 

I wanted to become a pilot. My family lived near the airport in a suburb of Accra in Ghana, which was on the flight paths, so the background sounds of aircraft were part of my childhood. This experience ignited my early desire to become a pilot. 

However, reflecting on it now, I’m happy with my career path as a researcher contributing to positive change, as I’ve come to perceive the aircraft movement in my community, particularly during the night-time, as ‘noise’.

What are your city highlights so far?

I like the green spaces, including the Victoria Gardens, which are great for relaxation and meditation.

Have you found a favourite location on campus?

The Parkinson Building is one of the first landmarks I identified upon arriving at the University. I use the café there as a meeting point, and I also like to take occasional pictures on the stairways. I pass by the building almost every day on my way to work. 

What’s still on your ‘to do’ list to visit?

One of the things I love about living in Leeds is there’s so much on offer in terms of theatre, dance and music. stage@leeds is a fantastic venue, and I would love to see some contemporary performances, as well as to attend the annual Leeds International Festival and the Leeds International Film Festival. A visit to the Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery is also on my list!

Where’s your favourite travel destination and why?

I love travelling to mountainous or savanna regions to explore the vegetation. In Ghana, we’re fortunate to have the Akwapim-Togo – a mountain range that stretches from the Eastern region through the Volta region into Togo. 

Whenever I journey to the Volta region of Ghana via the Ho-Hohoe road, I’m captivated by the lush greenery adorning these mountains. The sunlight gently plays upon the hills, creating enchanting shadows over Lake Volta, adding to its natural beauty.

What do you do to relax away from work?

I also have a great affinity for visiting mountainous regions in other parts of the world, including the Central Alps in Austria, the Lake District National Park in the UK and Montreux in Switzerland. It’s worth noting that I’m more likely to be found standing at the base of these mountains and immersing myself in the breath-taking landscapes rather than hiking up them! 

What makes you laugh the most?

Comedy that points out the absurdities or contradictions in society or human behaviour can be both funny and thought provoking. ‘The Big Bang Theory’ is one of my favourite sitcoms.

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