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Challenges of Food and Nutrition Security

Challenges of Food and Nutrition Security

The course will analyse challenges to ensure food and nutrition security for all now and in the future as well as challenges posed for societies and individuals by food and nutrition insecurity. Special attention is paid to the impact of shocks such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine for local and global FNS.

Course Structure

Food and nutrition security: concept, measurement and trends 

An introduction to the concept of food and nutrition security. Specific issues covered are different definitions used in the literature and in the common debate and the evolution of thinking about food and nutrition security over time. In addition, this lecture introduces different ways in which food and nutrition security can be measured, including the FAO approach based on availability, anthropometric indicators (Body Mass Index; weight-for-age, weigh-for-height, height-for-age) and indicators for diet diversity (Household Diet Diversity Score, Food consumption score) In addition, historical trends in food and nutrition security are discussed, taking a long-term as well as a short term perspective, and zooming in from global trends to regional and local developments.

Challenges to achieve global food security: demand

There are many challenges to achieve global food security. On the consumption side, we pay attention to population growth and composition, within countries as well as between countries and regions; to urbanization and globalization; and to the impact of increasing incomes on dietary patterns and food demand. Trade patterns – in particular import dependencies for food – are discussed as well. In addition, the impact of non-food demand for food crops and the additional burden posed by food waste is discussed. Here, topics are the use of food crops for biofuel production, animal feed, fibres, and forestry products. Next, the type and magnitude of food losses at various stages in the production chain are discussed.

Challenges to achieve global food security: production

Next, we take the production perspective, concentrating on challenges associated with sustainable production of food required to meet future demand. We start with a historical perspective on food production. After an overview of the ‘Hunters and Gatherers’ culture and the first settlements that heralded the first agricultural revolution we concentrate on important shocks and technological breakthroughs, varying from inventions like the nailed horse shoe, heavy plough, and horse collar to the Green Revolution, the big upsurge in production achieved in the mid 20th century in many areas of the world, and genetic modification of organisms (GMO) and highlights pros and cons of this technology. Then, we move to the negative impacts of the intensification of agricultural production, e.g., overuse of fertilizer, pesticides, and water, reduction of nutritional value of crops, reduction of animal welfare, and concentration on a limited set of high-yielding varieties and breeds. Three case studies are being discussed in-depth: FS in Small Island Developing States, FS in Arctic regions, FS among marginalized groups in the America’s.

Food security in times of conflict and disaster

Here, we concentrate on policies that have throughout history contributed to food insecurity. Specifically, the lecture considers the use of hunger as weapon and as a tactic to suppress areas – the Holodomor in Ukraine in the 1930s is a prime example. In addition, policies aimed at transition from agricultural economies to industrialized societies have caused massive food insecurity and starvation, with as extreme cases the collectivization in Russia in the 1920s and 1930s and China’ Great Leap Forward between 1958 and 1962. Thirdly, (civil) war and unrest threaten food security by hampering trade and production, and through destruction of infrastructure. We will also explicitly cover the war in Ukraine, as an example of how local wars can impact on FNS in other parts of the world. Next, we look at the impact of epidemic diseases on food security, starting from the impact of smallpox in Ancient Greece, the plague in Medieval Europe, again smallpox in Central and South America, being introduced there by the European conquerors, and more recently, outbreak of “Spanish influenza” after the first World War; the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Ebola, and, of course, Covid-19.

Challenges of food insecurity for individuals and societies 

Whereas the first part of the course focused on challenges to achieve food security, we now move to challenges food and nutrition insecurity pose for individuals and societies. Here, we discuss the nutrition based efficiency wage hypothesis, that emphasizes the causal link from food and nutrition deficiency to low working capacity, inducing a vicious cycle since low working capacity translates into low wages and a high probability of food insecurity or low dietary quality. We discuss impact of nutritional deficiencies at the level of children as well as adults. In addition, we introduce the negative impacts of over nutrition on individual health In addition, we introduce indicators to measure the societal costs of diseases that can also be used to measure the costs of under- and over nutrition (Disability Adjusted Life Years, DALYs). Furthermore, it discusses the problem of the “double burden” of malnutrition posed on many developing countries to date, where simultaneous occurrence of over- and undernutrition poses severe challenges to the health system and public policies. Continued failure to adequately meet nutritional needs of the population poses a threat to stability of a country, and hence, we also highlight how in history failure to secure food security has led to the downfall of ruling parties or persons.

Interventions to improve food and nutrition security 

In the final block of the course, the focus is on interventions to improve food and nutrition security. We start with a theoretical lecture, where interventions and policies, targeted at the consumer/household are discussed. This includes income support measures, initiatives directly impacting on access to healthy and nutritious food, interventions aimed at increasing knowledge of households and on rules and regulations aimed at securing food quality and safety. In addition , the lecture discusses interventions aimed at increasing agricultural productivity and/or the quality of production. We pay particular attention to the implementation of the Water-Energy-Food nexus in the Middle East and on SIDS in the Caribbean as well as urban agriculture initiatives in Benin. 

Dr. Lia van Wesenbeeck

Dr. Lia van Wesenbeeck

Dr Lia van Wesenbeeck is associate professor in development economics, has extensive experience in general equilibrium theory and applications, and the modelling of the water-energy-food nexus, as well as spatially explicit statistical analysis of survey and map data, and profiling of vulnerable groups. She lectures in the field of economics and food security and serves on various national and international boards and committees, among which the Advisory Committee of United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UNESCWA), for a study on food loss in Morocco; The sounding board group Horizon Europe Health; and the Advisory Board “National food and nutrition security survey”, South Africa.

Additional course information

  • Learning objectives

    After successfully completing this course, students will:

    • Have a broad understanding of the concept of FNS
    • Be able to identify, calculate and interpret basic indicators for FNS and judge their relevance
    • Be familiar with and understand the challenges to achieve FNS
    • Be familiar with and understand the challenges posed by FNS failure for societies and individuals
    • Be familiar with and understand the rationale for possible interventions to improve FNS
  • Forms of tuition and assessment

    Forms of tuition: There will be 8 sessions of 4 hours each which will take place in the following days:

    Sessions 1 & 2:       Wednesday 11th January     (morning and afternoon)
    Sessions 3 & 4:       Friday 13th January             (morning and afternoon)
    Session 5:               Monday 16th January          (morning)
    Sessions 6 & 7:       Wednesday 18th January    (morning and afternoon)
    Sessions 8:          Friday 20th January            (Morning)


    Hour division:  Sessions 1-4 and 6-7 will consist of 3 hours of interactive lecturing and 1 hour of working on and asking questions about the assignments (the food groups and individual essay). Session 5 is devoted to the presentations of the food groups, while in the final meeting 8, the students will be divided into different groups to do a policy simulation game where they have to design policies to improve FNS for a fictitious country using all the tools and skills acquired in the lectures before.


    Forms of assessment: There are several elements that will contribute to the final grade of this course. 

    • (1) Individual essay on food security in times of disaster and disease (50%), 
    • (2) Group presentation on different aspects of a selected “food group” (50%): in the first lecture, groups of students are formed that focus on studying either (1) maize, (2) meat, (3) dairy, (4) horticulture (fruits and vegetables), (5) sugar. 
    • Active participation is expected.

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  • Bianca
  • Programme Coordinator
  • Celia
  • Summer and Winter School Officer
Celia VU Amsterdam Summer & Winter School
  • Helena
  • Summer and Winter School Officer
Helena VU Amsterdam Summer and Winter School