“We can now predict 100% of food crashes and recoveries three to six months ahead of time. This is going to save lives,” said Chapman University Presidential Fellow Joshua B. Fisher.

In a paper published Sept. 29 in the highly respected journal Nature Sustainability, Fisher and three other investigators detail how their breakthrough research model predicted every global food security crisis within record at least three months in advance. What’s more, they accurately predicted the length and magnitude of each food crisis.

Going forward, the scientific advance may allow nations, the UN and humanitarian aid organizations to more efficiently direct resources to areas of drought and famine before those regions tip into full-blown crisis.

Existing predictive systems fail to anticipate many crises, resulting in loss of lives and resources, the researchers said. Droughts are the source of two-thirds of those misses.

The researchers’ model is called SMART, for Soil Moisture Auto-Regressive Threshold. They achieved their key breakthrough by applying a tool of climate change science called Tipping Point Theory to clarify satellite data that measures the moisture content of soil. Other factors are represented in the model as well, including the price of grain, but they are ancillary contributors, Fisher said.

Reliable early-warning data are a driver of funding for humanitarian response to food security crises, said lead author Krishna Krishnamurthy, who works for the UN World Food Programme as an anticipatory action and planning coordinator.

“Donors don’t always want to invest in a setting of uncertainty,” he said. “But if we can show that we’re getting really high levels of accuracy in our model, that will improve the confidence in the data and in the recommendation to act. Investing in early action and not just after the fact is critical.”

It takes about four to eight weeks to mount an emergency response to a food security crisis, Krishnamurthy said. So the chance to prepare for a famine three to six months in advance rather than reacting as many as eight weeks after systems have tipped into crisis is an exciting prospect, according to the paper.

Since their paper was published, they have received outreach from a number of actors who support humanitarian interventions, including the World Bank, “which is quite encouraging,” Fisher say.