By Nigel Gibbs, RTAC Communications Manager
Dr. Willem Verhagen is a Research Scientist with the Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures at the University of Denver in Colorado. His most recent work with RTAC, The Future of Food Security in the Wake of COVID-19, studies the potential impact of COVID-19 on country-level trends in food security from today until 2040. Ironically, he has become all too familiar with COVID-19 over the past two years. When he began his new position with the Pardee Center in April 2020, the pandemic had just taken hold in the U.S. Since then, Dr. Verhagen and his team have worked on numerous research studies relating to COVID-19, including studies that examined the virus’ impact on economic development and trade in Africa, as well as COVID-19 and its impact on Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) achievement.
However, The Future of Food Security in the Wake of COVID-19 is arguably one of the most unique research projects conducted on the novel virus. The pandemic is slowing development progress around the world. Research suggests there will be significant increases in extreme poverty, undernourishment, and child stunting relative to a world without COVID-19. The report examines three scenarios, one counterfactual where COVID-19 did not occur and another two scenarios with impacts of COVID-19 on economic growth, education, and government finances, with one being a more pessimistic scenario, sketching a world with worsening impacts in low-income countries.
I was surprised to find that COVID-19 can have long-term effects on food security that are still significant 20 years from now.Dr. Willem Verhagen
His research has left him with many insights and caused him to come away with several unexpected findings. Despite Dr. Verhagen’s training as an agricultural scientist with a focus on agricultural management, climate change, yields, and land-use change, he was amazed to see how much more important the economy and child development are for food security. “If we look at food security and the effects of COVID-19 thereon they are all through changes in the economy, in household income, inequality in household income, and government finances,” noted Dr. Verhagen. He continues, “I was surprised to find that COVID-19 can have long-term effects on food security that are still significant 20 years from now. When I started this work, I was very much focused on the immediate effects in 2020 and expected to see the main effects fade out over time. But rather what we found in this study and by studying previous economic and health crises is that there is a real long-term risk for negative effects that continue 20 years from now.”
For Dr. Verhagen, even more alarming was to see that long-term effects might even surpass the immediate effects of the pandemic. “This is especially true for child stunting which is strongly linked to indicators of child development. It shows the wide potential implications COVID-19 can have, and the importance of simultaneously focusing on the short-term management of the crisis and long-term recovery of economic and human development. Many of the socio-economic and human development effects of the pandemic are not over after we’ve contained the virus,” revealed Dr. Verhagen.
There must be a focus on equitable vaccine distribution to some of the most food insecure countries. The longer the pandemic continues the larger the socio-economic effects and the larger the risk for negative long-term effectsDr. Willem Verhagen
The research scientist believes to create more favorable outcomes for the future of food security in the face of COVID-19, he points to three steps, namely equitable and widespread vaccine distribution, lowering inequalities in food consumption between and within countries, and an increase in investing in child nutrition and development.
The first step is to slow the spread of the virus as quickly as possible. “There must be a focus on equitable vaccine distribution to some of the most food insecure countries. The longer the pandemic continues the larger the socio-economic effects and the larger the risk for negative long-term effects,” explained Dr. Verhagen.
According to the Pardee researcher, the second step should focus on lowering inequalities in food consumption between and within countries. “Raising household income, especially for the most vulnerable communities, is the key to ending food security. COVID-19 and its economic effects have made this even more apparent and important. To do so, will likely involve a redistribution of wealth from wealthier countries and individuals to the poor,” noted Dr. Verhagen.
The third step concentrates on increasing investments in children’s food security and child development. Dr. Verhagen explains, “There is a real risk that a lot of the long-term negative consequences of the pandemic fall to the youngest generation. Minimizing the direct food security and indirect health effects of the pandemic should be key today, and investing in education, gender equality, and stable government can provide them with the tools to be more resilient to shocks in 10 to 20 years.”
the path to the elimination of hunger will not be simple or easy. It will be multidimensional and require improvements in food availability, access to safe water, and additional policies that address poverty and household incomesDr. Willem Verhagen
With the long report now released and a special presentation available to the public, Dr. Verhagen hopes policymakers will take heed of the report and help minimize the effects of COVID-19 on food security and the subsequent effects on extreme poverty, undernourishment, and child stunting, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia.
The Pardee researcher encourages readers to remember, “the path to the elimination of hunger will not be simple or easy. It will be multidimensional and require improvements in food availability, access to safe water, and additional policies that address poverty and household incomes.”
The Dutch scientist felt compelled to recognize the many institutions and individuals who helped put together the report. He credits, “USAID and especially the Bureau for Resilience and Food Security, specifically Chris Hillbruner and Anthony Sperber. My colleagues at Pardee, and especially David Bohl and Jonathan Moyer, have been key contributors to this report. But, I specifically want to highlight the contributions of our student Research Assistants Mallory Cannon, Andres Pulido, Audrey Pirzadeh, and Iris Nott.”