The Centre for World Food Studies (Dutch acronym SOW-VU for "Stichting Onderzoek Wereldvoedsel-voorziening van de Vrije Universiteit"), founded in 1977, is a research institute that provides support, at both national and international levels, to the formulation of food and agricultural policies and policies aiming at poverty reduction. The Centre is engaged in applied and quantitative research. It co-operates with scientists and policy makers from developing countries so as to ensure that policy formulation and capacity building evolve together. The Centre also contributes to debates and policy dialogues on food related issues.
The relationships between the determinants of development are being investigated from the perspective of various disciplines: economics, agronomy and earth and life sciences. Quantitative modeling and the development of new, innovative tools is core business of the Centre. This provides a broad knowledge base from which the Centre performs an advisory role to Dutch ministries and international institutions, and executes or participates in a number of externally funded projects with a strong research component. It also supports capacity building projects in developing countries by maintaining research partnerships and the joint implementation of projects or training modules.
Research is demand and problem driven. Research projects originate from developing countries or donor agencies that want to invest in developing countries. Reaching policy makers through the results of our work is a main objective, but in addition local researchers are involved in problem identification, research design and implementation. If needed, local scientists receive training, while locally organized meetings and policy dialogues provide outreach and dissemination of the results. This strategy has won durable partnerships in quite a few developing countries in Asia and Africa, as can be seen from their presentations collected in the Proceedings of the 25th anniversary of the Centre.
Although the research agenda consists of many crosscutting issues the following classification into four themes provides a comprehensive summary of our activities.
Much of the project work is data intensive, and requires the processing of information from household surveys or satellite images. This requires more flexible and versatile methods than commonly used in econometrics. Techniques developed in artificial intelligence, where data sets are larger so that qualitative information plays a central role and flexibility is a key issue, have been adapted to our specific needs. Also the visualization of data sets is now incorporated as standard routine in the data processing process. An additional advantage of this is to enhance the discussion and communication with policy makers. Another area in which significant methodological efforts were made is the design of new tools for large-scale modeling. Doing justice to a complex reality, including the nature of biophysical processes and diversity in agro-ecological conditions, dynamics, and socio-economic characteristics of people, often requires the formulation of models that explicitly incorporate this diversity. Dedicated algorithms manage the interactions, even for spatially explicit models with a very high resolution. Finally, the Centre has a long history in the construction of applied general equilibrium models, both in the development of a platform that covers a large number of extensions of the standard model, as well as in economy-wide applications for a number of developing countries (Indonesia, Thailand, Bangladesh, Nigeria, China) and the EU (in particular for an impact analysis of the Common Agricultural Policy).
Here the two central issues of research are the measurement of poverty and the analysis of the determinants of poverty. Measurement of the prevalence of poverty can be derived from income indicators as reported in household surveys on rural poverty (such as the surveys carried out in the Caucasus, the Lebanon and at present in Syria) and alternatively from anthropometric measurements. Interestingly, estimates of undernutrition and poverty based on these data sources can differ substantially, and recent research argues in favor of using anthropometrical data.The Centre has been involved in collaborative research on food security, health and education in five West African countries for over ten years. Within this network we made intensive efforts to mobilize research capacity and produced a series of papers on the education and health systems with cross-country comparisons, disseminated via Round Table conferences and workshops. Currently, the existing network of partnerships is used for follow-up projects such as an investigation into the feasibility of a crop insurance scheme in Ghana and research support to improve the national accounts of the Ghana Statistical Service.
Maintaining and improving the stock of natural resources and environmental assets is of great importance for developing and developed countries alike, both for its productive capacity and as source of enjoyment for its consumers. In both cases, the task is to identify policies for sustainable use of the natural resource base. These questions are looked into in formal theoretical analysis and in applied studies, especially in water valuation studies, showing that natural resource processes can indeed be integrated in economic modeling.In projects where water as economic good takes a central place and where optimal water allocation decisions have to be made, spatial diversity is often an important issue. If the modeling of physical flows is supposed to follow hydrological laws, a model architecture incorporating spatially explicit optimization programs can be designed that operates at a high level of resolution using physical data on climate, soils and elevation. A particular application here is the modeling of the Jordan River Basin.Another topic of study relates to soil fertility and attempts to uncover the reasons for the, compared to Asia, limited adoption in Sub-Saharan Africa of Green Revolution technologies. An important limiting factor for crop yields is the availability of micronutrients and in may places chemical imbalances in the soil cause inefficiencies of macronutrient applications. Again it turns out that novel statistical tools, specifically semi-parametric applications, must be invoked in order to identify the spatial effects and to explain the production relationships in a satisfactory way.
Understanding and assessing the developments of the world food situation is a permanent and broad based activity of the Centre where we particularly focus on selected topics that need to be signaled or researched more prominently. One example of recent research on food trends is the pressure that may arise in cereal markets due to the strong increase of meat consumption in fast growing developing countries. Another is that the functioning of the agricultural sector is affected by driving forces other than policy alone. Changes in technology, demography, income levels and consumer preferences have an impact on their own. On the consumer side these refer to the so-called consumer concerns, in response to which firms react to monitor all steps along the processing chain, from raw material to retail. This leads to various forms of vertical integration, offering both opportunities and threats to development (access to international markets and low bargaining power of primary producers, respectively).In more quantitative terms, the consequences of the agricultural policies of the EU, via the Common Agricultural Policy, are assessed in model-based studies, carried out in cooperation with the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy (CPB, The Hague). This expertise also offers the basis for more specific policy advice on the institutional aspects of CAP reform, in particular the implementation of multifunctionality in agriculture and on the international trade aspects via the WTO.Another area where more quantitative studies and empirical evidence is needed is the role and effectiveness of food aid. While the need for emergency aid is hardly in dispute, the role of food aid as budgetary support has been criticized widely for its possibly adverse effects such as distorting local food markets and traditional consumption patterns. Also the effectiveness in reaching the needy may be questioned. In this respect we have initiated a project on a spatially explicit, Africa-wide analysis of food supply as a source of regionally or locally purchased food aid to replace procurement from stocks in donor countries.