Restructuring the food system after COVID-19

By Husam Ibrahim, International Science Council (ISC)

The IIASA-ISC Resilient Food Systems report looks at the vulnerabilities in the food system and recommends changes to move forward through COVID-19 recovery plans that prioritize society’s least protected.

Credit: Adam Islaam – IIASA

The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified and brought to the fore existing vulnerabilities and global interdependency in societal institutions, including the food system. The pandemic has exaggerated the scarcity in some areas’ food supplies and highlighted the divide between the haves and have-nots.

The number of people suffering from poverty had been on a steady decline, going from 2 billion people in 1990 to 740 million in 2015. However, for the first time in decades, the global poverty rate is once again increasing due to the pandemic. Early estimates suggest that an additional 88 million to 115 million people may suffer extreme poverty, with the total rising to as many as 150 million by 2021.

The socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic are further exacerbating inequalities within and between  countries, and intensifying the rise in food insecurity observed since 2014. It has been estimated that the effects of the pandemic could have longer-term repercussion for low-income countries, greatly undermining their development prospects, unless sufficient international support is provided.

In order to explore how the world can recover from the crisis sustainably, IIASA and the International Science Council (ISC) launched the Consultative Science Platform: Bouncing Forward Sustainably Post COVID-19. The two organizations have drawn on their combined strengths, expertise, and large scientific communities, to come up with a set of insights and recommendations based on a series of online consultations that have brought together over 200 experts from all regions of the world. The Resilient Food Systems report is a contribution to this effort.

Resilient Food Systems

Transformations within reach:
Pathways to a sustainable and resilient world




While the pandemic exerted supply and demand shocks across economic sectors, the report highlights that the food system was particularly affected by impacts on employment and income in relation. This is because international food supply has been strong, and the supply-demand ratios have remained stable throughout the pandemic. However, job and income losses, insufficient safety nets, and constraints on local access to food created conditions for food insecurity.

Lack of access to basic services, such as water and sanitation, and the prevalence of informal employment, have forced many people in low- and middle-income countries to make the impossible choice between following physical distancing measures or maintaining basic income and access to food. Before the pandemic, an estimated 3 billion people were unable to afford a healthy diet on a consistent basis.

Therefore, the report argues that the emphasis on efficiency – which has in large part been driving the evolution of food systems – must be balanced with an emphasis on concerns related to resilience and equity. With this, the food system can combat future crises while serving society’s most vulnerable. The recovery process should be harnessed to strengthen the preparedness of the food system to manage multiple risks.

As highlighted by the pandemic, this would entail expanding the scope and reach of social safety nets and protection schemes. Future food systems should be characterized by better pricing-in of environmental externalities. The sustainable management of natural resources should be seen as an integral part of strengthening the resilience of food systems, recognizing also the close linkage between human and planetary health concerns.

‘ In light of resilience and sustainability concerns the focus should be on using agricultural areas that we already have, rehabilitating degraded environments, and looking into the potential of diversification of practices and technologies.’

Frank Sperling, Senior Project Manager, IIASA

The role of different agricultural practices in building resilience needs to be looked into. This includes high-tech solutions like biotechnology, as well as an increase in the trade of agricultural goods, a sustainable increase in crop yields, and using underutilized crops to their full potential.

This also means protecting biological diversity, minimizing the destruction of pristine natural environments and focusing on the regeneration of natural ecosystems.

The report also states that strong international institutions are necessary to coordinate policies and limit tensions between multiple social, economic, and environmental interests represented within food systems internationally. Further funding, integration, and emphasis on context-specific solutions can help make changes, and emerging action-oriented knowledge and funding platforms are being used to help transform the food systems.

‘It is very important that these reforms are characterized by global collaboration, keeping nutritional security at the forefront with society’s most vulnerable people in mind, so that no one gets left behind.’

Frank Sperling, Senior Project Manager, IIASA

For more information on how COVID-19 is impacting the food system, and the lessons learned from the pandemic, read the IIASA-ISC Resilient Food Systems Report.

You can also watch the discussion on Strengthening Science Systems as part of the launch event for the Bouncing Forward Sustainably: Pathways to a post-COVID World, which explores the key themes of Sustainable Energy, Governance for Sustainability, Strengthening Science Systems and Resilient Food Systems.

This blog post was first published on the website of the International Science Council. Read the original article here.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

How COVID-19 complicates the journey for climate migrants

By Lisa Thalheimer, 2020 IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) participant in the Risk and Resilience and World Population Programs

Lisa Thalheimer shares her journey in researching climate-related migration in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic and the importance of taking mental health issues into account in climate science and the policy realm.

© Raul Mellado Ortiz |

COVID-19 has changed our idea of normal. These unprecedented, stressful times affect us all – some of us more than others. Fear and anxiety over a new disease without any promise of a vaccine anytime soon, global economic downturn, along with feelings of loneliness and emotional exhaustion due to the lockdown, can leave us mentally exhausted. Rates of depression and addiction-related suicide are in fact already on the rise among young people like myself.

Now imagine you are advised to stay at home, but you cannot do so because climate change has turned your entire life upside down: your house is no longer there, you have lost your job, your family or friends – you are likely to feel unhinged. This is a reality for many migrants across the globe. It is inevitable that existing migration patterns will be shifted beyond disasters alone. Cascading impacts form the still unfolding pandemic could compound. No matter if you are a migrant yourself or not, agency and the choice over the decision whether to leave your house or not, and the luxury to socially distance could potentially not be an option with a systemic shock like COVID-19.

These changes in circumstances have also affected me as a young scientist. I would have been in Laxenburg, getting to know my YSSP peers and IIASA colleagues, but this year’s journey has been rewritten – courtesy of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I was living in Oxford in the UK when I came to realise that mental health is a game changer in the way I manage my day, make decisions, my ability to care for my partner who suffers from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), and making progress on my PhD thesis. Everything felt more difficult. I was overwhelmed. I wanted to understand why this is the case. My interest soon evolved into researching the links between mental health and my PhD topic of climate-related migration.

For the article “The hidden burden of pandemics, climate change and migration on mental health”, I teamed up with an epidemiologist who specialises in mental health at my old university home, the Earth Institute in New York City. This research experience was an eye-opener, both personally and scientifically.

In our article, we focused on the US, as it has been hit hardest by COVID-19 – in mid-August, the number of COVID-19 cases exceeded five million. On top of this, depression and anxiety are already prominent among Americans, as is costly impacts from disasters. Hurricanes cost the US around US$ 17 billion every year, but estimates show a higher probability of extremely damaging hurricane seasons with climate change. We may know the impact of climate change on assets and on physical health, but what about mental health impacts?

© Raggedstonedesign |

Although my coauthor and I come from different scientific disciplines, I soon came to realize that our scientific approach has a common denominator: systems thinking. Accounting for interconnections and cascading effects, our article shed light on different systems affected by COVID-19 and situations where mental health issues are likely to become increasingly prevalent in a changing climate. The article focuses on already vulnerable parts of the population, for example those who have been impacted by Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Harvey – the latter of which has been made worse by climate change. The article illustrates how COVID-19 becomes a risk multiplier for climate migrants in three distinct case studies: key workers in New York as urban setting, seasonal migration dynamics, and disproportionate effects on black and Latino communities. Unrelenting effects include loss of employment, and a lower likelihood of being able to work from home or to have health insurance than white people.

A better understanding of the mental health-migration-climate change nexus can help absorb adverse mental health outcomes from COVID-19, which would otherwise compound. We however need to tackle systemic risks affecting mental health through synergies in research and policy, and an integrated intervention approach. Free mental health support for key workers through tele-therapy and mental health hotlines provide a practical way forward. Personally, I learned that climate migrants have been relentlessly resilient to systemic shocks. Nevertheless, with mental health issues, it becomes increasingly hard to maintain such resilience. With this commentary, I hope that mental health and interdisciplinary research finds its way in climate science and in the policy realm. We all need a clear mind to attain the Sustainable Development Goals.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Reducing COVID-19 vulnerability in Latin America and the Caribbean

By Raquel Guimaraes, postdoc in the IIASA World Population Program

IIASA postdoc Raquel Guimaraes writes about efforts by the scientific community to encourage governments in Latin America and the Caribbean to increase COVID-19 test coverage to reduce vulnerability.

© Kukhunthod |

Together with a group of demographers from Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), and endorsed by more than 250 individuals from the academic community, I contributed to a statement urging governments, the World Health Organization, and the Pan American Health Organization, to take immediate action to drastically increase the coverage of COVID-19 tests in the region. This call for action was disseminated by the British Society for Population Studies, Asociación Latino Americana de Población, Sociedad Mexicana de Demografía, Associação Brasileira de Estudos Populacionais, and the Population Association of America, among other important institutions.

I joined this initiative by invitation from Dr. Enrique Acosta and other colleagues, because I firmly believe that the prospects for the COVID-19 pandemic in the LAC region are rather dramatic. Several studies document that, apart from being globally recognized for its high levels of economic and social inequality, the region also suffers from institutional coordination failures and poor governance, a lack of appropriate resources, and presents a unique epidemiological and demographic profile of its population that escalates the negative prospects of the pandemic. I wanted to explore in more detail why these features of LAC are a source of major concern and require immediate action.

Social and economic inequality in LAC will hamper the enforcement of social distancing and isolation measures, which have proven to mitigate the COVID-19 epidemic in other settings. More than half of the population is in the informal labour market and does not have access to social safety nets. For those covered by the social security system, the benefits already proposed by a few governments of the region such as Brazil, fall short of the daily needs of families. In addition to economic inequality, social inequality, which leads to a high degree of cohabitation between adults and the elderly, increases the exposure of those with the highest risk of complications and death.

In addition, with the closure of schools, children who do not have access to day-care centres and the public- or private education system, often rely on the help of their grandparents, which again brings greater vulnerability to families. Not to mention that these children won’t have ensured their learning opportunities, because their parents are often working and not able to home-school them, thus compromising their education outcomes.

Moreover, LAC is facing a rapid demographic transition and aging process, which is temporarily increasing the prevalence of a young population, meaning that the population age-structure of potential infected individuals differs from that of other settings. However, unlike the more developed countries, LAC’s epidemiologic transition, that is, the transition in which the prevalence of infectious diseases is “substituted” by chronic and degenerative diseases, is not complete. Paradoxically, the region exhibits both the prevalence of diseases that have long been eradicated in more developed contexts (such as malaria, dengue, and tuberculosis) and diseases of richer countries (such as hypertension, diabetes, and neoplasms).

On top of all the above-mentioned vulnerabilities, crisis-management efforts in the region are uncoordinated, and lacking transparency and commitment. Taking Brazil as an example: while some mayors and governors adopt measures of social isolation and prevention against COVID-19, parts of the federal executive power not only disdain the problem, but encourages the population not to meet the requirements established by the Ministry of Health. Such conflicting rules are bound to cause misunderstandings among the LAC population. The COVID-19 pandemic is a crucial moment for institutional coordination to ensure the effective management of the crisis.

As an important and urgent call to action for the pandemic in the region, myself and other LAC researchers are calling for an increase in test coverage and measures of social isolation. As reported in the non-specialized media under the slogan “help to flatten the curve”, social isolation allows the rate of contagion of the virus to be reduced, in order to prevent overloading the capacity of the health system. Existing literature documents that while the virus does not cause major damage to health for the majority of infected persons, it brings a high cost to the health system. Furthermore, the impacts on the later lives of individuals who were hospitalized due to the disease are not yet known. Not to mention, of course, the human tragedy and the costs in terms of lives lost to the disease.

Finally, imperative and immediate action against COVID-19 in LAC will depend on the widespread and low-cost application of tests. This is required because the former rigorous isolation measures mentioned above are highly ineffective if not accompanied by aggressive strategies to detect cases of COVID-19. This highlights the relevance of data collection to better inform policymakers and provide researchers with clear diagnoses of the conditions in the region.


Deaton A (2013). Cap. 3. Escaping death in the Tropics. In The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality. Princeton University Press.

Hoffman K, & Centeno MA (2003). The Lopsided Continent: Inequality in Latin America. Annual Review of Sociology, 29(1), 363–390.

Khemani S, Ferraz C, Finan FS, Johnson S, Louise C, Abrahams SD, Odugbemi AM, Dal Bó E, & Thapa D (2016). Making politics work for development: Harnessing transparency and citizen engagement (Policy Research Report). The World Bank.

Pérez CC, & Hernández AL (2007). Latin–American public financial reporting: Recent and future development. Public Administration and Development, 27(2), 139–157.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis

Running global models in a castle in Europe

By Matt Cooper, PhD student at the Department of Geographical Sciences, University of Maryland, and 2018 winner of the IIASA Peccei Award

I never pictured myself working in Europe.  I have always been an eager traveler, and I spent many years living, working and doing fieldwork in Africa and Asia before starting my PhD.  I was interested in topics like international development, environmental conservation, public health, and smallholder agriculture. These interests led me to my MA research in Mali, working for an NGO in Nairobi, and to helping found a National Park in the Philippines.  But Europe seemed like a remote possibility.  That was at least until fall 2017, when I was looking for opportunities to get abroad and gain some research experience for the following summer.  I was worried that I wouldn’t find many opportunities, because my PhD research was different from what I had previously done.  Rather than interviewing farmers or measuring trees in the field myself, I was running global models using data from satellites and other projects.  Since most funding for PhD students is for fieldwork, I wasn’t sure what kind of opportunities I would find.  However, luckily, I heard about an interesting opportunity called the Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) at IIASA, and I decided to apply.

Participating in the YSSP turned out to be a great experience, both personally and professionally.  Vienna is a wonderful city to live in, and I quickly made friends with my fellow YSSPers.  Every weekend was filled with trips to the Alps or to nearby countries, and IIASA offers all sorts of activities during the week, from cultural festivals to triathlons.  I also received very helpful advice and research instruction from my supervisors at IIASA, who brought a wealth of experience to my research topic.  It felt very much as if I had found my kind of people among the international PhD students and academics at IIASA.  Freed from the distractions of teaching, I was also able to focus 100% on my research and I conducted the largest-ever analysis of drought and child malnutrition.

© Matt Cooper

Now, I am very grateful to have another summer at IIASA coming up, thanks to the Peccei Award. I will again focus on the impact climate shocks like drought have on child health.  however, I will build on last year’s research by looking at future scenarios of climate change and economic development.  Will greater prosperity offset the impacts of severe droughts and flooding on children in developing countries?  Or does climate change pose a hazard that will offset the global health gains of the past few decades?  These are the questions that I hope to answer during the coming summer, where my research will benefit from many of the future scenarios already developed at IIASA.

I can’t think of a better research institute to conduct this kind of systemic, global research than IIASA, and I can’t picture a more enjoyable place to live for a summer than Vienna.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Cornelius Hirsch: Digging into foreign investment in agriculture

By Parul Tewari, IIASA Science Communication Fellow 2017

Two things are distinctly noticeable when you meet Cornelius Hirsch—a cheerful smile that rarely leaves his face and the spark in his eyes as he talks about issues close to his heart. The range is quite broad though—from politics and economics to electronic music.

Cornelius Hirsch

After finishing high school, Hirsch decided to travel and explore the world. This paid off quite well. It was during his travels, encompassing Hong Kong, New Zealand, and California, that Hirsch started taking a keen interest in economic and political systems. This sparked his curiosity and helped him decide that he wanted to take up economics for higher studies. Therefore, after completing his masters in agricultural economics, Hirsch applied for a position as a research associate at the Austrian Institute of Economic Research and enrolled in the PhD-program of the Vienna University of Economics and Business to study trade, globalization, and its impact on rural areas. Currently, he is looking at subsidies and tariffs for farmers and the agricultural sector at a global scale.

As part of the 2017 Young Scientists Summer Program at IIASA, Hirsch is digging a little deeper to analyze how foreign direct investments (FDI) in agricultural land operate. “Since 2000, the number of foreign land acquisitions have been growing—governmental or private players buy a lot of land in different countries to produce crops. I was interested in knowing why there are so many of these hotspots in the world— sub-Saharan Africa, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia—why are people investing in these areas?,” says Hirsch.

Farming in one of the large agricultural areas in Indonesia ©CIFOR I Flickr

Increased food demand from a growing world population is leading to an increased rate of investment in agriculture in regions with large stretches of fertile land. That these regions are largely rain-fed make them even more attractive for investors as they save the cost of expensive irrigation services. In fact, Hirsch argues that “the term land-grabbing is misleading. It should actually be water-grabbing as water is the foremost deciding factor—even more important than simply land abundance.”

Some researchers have found an interesting contrast between FDI in traditional sectors, such as manufacturing, and the ones in agricultural land. While investors in the former look for stable institutions and good governmental efficiency, FDI in land deals seems to target regions with less stable institutions. This positive relationship between corruption and FDI is completely counterintuitive. Hirsch says that one reason could be that “sometimes weaker institutions are easier to get through when it comes to such vast amount of lands. A lot of times these deals and contracts are oral and have no written proof—the contracts are not transparent anyway.”

For example in South Sudan, the land and soil conditions seem to be so good that investors aren’t deterred despite conflicts due to corrupt practices or inefficient government agencies.

One of the indigenous communities in Madagascar, a place which is vulnerable to land acquisitions © IamNotUnique I Flickr

One area that often goes unnoticed is the violation of land rights of indigenous communities. If a government body decides to sell land or give out production licenses to investors for leasing the land without consulting the actual community, it is only much later that the affected community finds out that their land has been given away. Left with no land and hence no source of livelihood, these communities are forced to migrate to urban areas.

A strain of concern enters his voice as Hirsch talks about the impact. “Land as big as two times the area of Ecuador has been sold off in the past—but it accounts for a tiny percentage of the global production area.” With rising incomes and greater consumption of meat, a lot of land is used to produce animal feed crops. “This is a very inefficient way of using land,” he says.

During the summer program at IIASA, Hirsch is generating data that will help him look at these deals in detail and analyze the main factors that are taken into consideration before finalizing a land deal. At the moment he is only able to give an overview of land-grabbing at the global level. With more data on the location of the deals he can look at the factors that influence these decisions in the first place such as the proximity between the two countries involved in agricultural investments and the size of their economies.

While there is always huge media coverage when a scandal about these land acquisitions comes out in the open, Hirsch seems determined to dig deeper and uncover the dynamics involved.

About the researcher
Cornelius Hirsch is a research associate at the Austrian Institute of Economics and Research (WIFO). At IIASA he is working under the supervision of Tamas Krisztin and Linda See in the Ecosystems Services and Management Program (ESM).

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.