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COVID-19 impact on zoonotic disease risk solutions in displaced populations

last modified May 22, 2020 03:50 PM
While walking through the mud among the improvised tented shelters of an informal camp housing Syrian refugees in Jordan, I was approached by a desperate mother and her young disabled son. Amina [1] showed me a hand-written prescription of the medication she needed but had been unable to obtain, after losing access to medical assistance. As the war in Syria drags on, humanitarian actors have shifted from emergency response towards longer term development aid, affecting the assistance available to people living outside formal refugee camps.

The recent measures, that have been implemented to reduce the impact of the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic have further restricted the availability of aid. Lockdowns and movement restrictions have severely disrupted the supply of medical and food items available to refugees in- and outside camps. ‘Worldwide COVID-19 policy and health responses have so far mainly relied on uncontextualized ‘science-based’ risk assessments, which risk exacerbating local socio-economic and health inequalities.

Read the complete article by Dorien Braam here. Please find Dorien's  profile on our website. 

Image credit: Dorien Braam. Informal tented settlement, Mafraq, Jordan.



Covid-19 and agriculture: the coming contradictory hunger pandemic

last modified May 20, 2020 09:58 AM
To conceptualize agriculture as a way of catering to the needs of the many, while protecting what is left of nature, will be a major task for all future politics.

On 24 March 2020, the Chair of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), Thanawat Tiensin, addressed governments with an urgent warning. The state of food security and nutrition had already been alarming before the outbreak of COVID-19, but he expected the rising numbers of insufficiently nourished people to be aggravated as a result of the pandemic, "with the poor – notably the urban poor – people living in remote areas, migrant and informal sector workers, people in humanitarian crises and conflict areas, and other vulnerable groups likely to face the worst consequences". Tiensin recalled that after the financial crisis of 2008, the economic downturn had morphed into a full-blown food crisis. Therefore, he warned that "we must avoid this from happening again, for the sake of our peoples and our planet." 

Find out more on this article by Felix Anderl here. Please find Felix's profile on our website. 

Image credit: Tom Ashby, Farmers' Market at Piazza Mino, Fiesole.

COVID-19 impacts on food security: an opportunity to address old problems?

last modified May 14, 2020 06:12 PM
By 2050 the global population is expected to increase up to 9.8 billion people (UNDESA, 2017). Accordingly, food production will have to increase by 60 percent for food requirements to be met (FAO, 2015). This poses a big challenge for food systems as they have to achieve this sustainably. With the global scenario having changed drastically due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these already existing food security concerns have been heightened. The pandemic threatens to add to the 820 million people living in chronic hunger, as the measures adopted to stop the spread can hinder food production as well as people’s ability to purchase food.

COVID-19 is affecting the food supply chain by inhibiting the acquisition of key inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides, and by creating logistical hurdles that disrupt the supply chain. On the one hand, cereals production is largely unaffected as high yields are expected this year, unlike the 2007/8 crisis where the supply was diminished due to climatological conditions (Torero, 2020). Because cereals are capital intensive crops which mostly rely on machinery to be harvested, the mobility restrictions do not affect their production. Instead, the restrictions create logistical problems along the supply chain, including transportation and distribution hurdles, such as restrictions on vessels. These problems affect cereal exporter countries, as their income depends from those exports, as well as food importer countries, such as Small Island Developing States, who are unable to meet their food security requirements because of mobility restrictions preventing imports. Similarly, food importer countries can also be affected by increased prices given a decreased supply.  

On the other hand, high-value food exporter countries are directly affected by the restrictions because these crops are labour intensive. Lockdowns and health conditions decrease the labour available to harvest and distribute food, which results in food waste. In particular, COVID-19 responses restrict migrant labour, particularly that of seasonal workers, on which many countries’ food security relies. Additionally, mobility restrictions can prevent access to markets, particularly for smallholders who might not be able to get the permits that many countries are granting their essential sector workers. Their exclusion from markets furthers inequalities between them and large-scale farmers, and can push them into poverty. 

Furthermore, the arrival of COVID-19 in countries on differing timelines has prevented a globally coordinated response, and has resulted in countries taking isolationist policies. For instance, Russia, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Cambodia and Vietnam have banned the export of some crops, which disrupts the global value chain, as currently countries are highly interrelated and depend on each other for key inputs to achieve food security (Hendrix, 2020; Torero, 2020). Trade restrictions such as the ones adopted by these countries can lead to food insecurity by reducing the global supply of food, mainly considering that some of them, such as Russia, are major exporters of food staples (Torero, 2020). 

Beyond food supply, COVID-19 also creates consumption changes as restaurants have been shut down and people advised to limit their trips to the grocery stores. Both of these changes reduce the demand for food and change consumption patterns towards non-perishable goods. This consumption change can result in food waste as producers of perishable goods are unable to find the same volume of consumers. For instance, small producers in Peru had to discard 15 tons of white cocoa pulp because the demand had decreased considerably, and they were unable to export it or find consumers (La Republica, 2020). Similarly, the global economic crisis is jeopardising nearly half of the world’s livelihoods (ILO, 2020), which decreases people’s incomes and budgets designated for food consumption. Consequently, this will be translated into a decreased demand, particularly for high-value crops. Countries’ that are heavy high-value food exporters, such as Peru and Ghana, will see a decrease in their foreign exchange reserves, which can also affect their capacity to import food, and thus can threaten their food security. 

Both changes in the supply and demand of food can affect people’s livelihoods, particularly those of the rural population. For instance, poverty is likely to increase as food producers are unable to sell their produce or acquire inputs to continue food production. In particular, informal food producers will find it harder to access social benefits such as unemployment insurance, financial incentives, or food baskets. Notably, an increase of food prices (FAOa) can also threaten people’s food insecurity, especially of those who were already in poor and vulnerable situations. Additionally, mobility restrictions and a general pause to the economy can decrease or stop migrants’ remittances, which can hinder the livelihoods of those in rural areas as remittances make up an important part of their incomes. Moreover, the direct effects of COVID-19 on farmers’ health affects their productivity, decreases labour on the fields, and results in decreased supply and family income. Overall, the impacts of COVID-19 have the potential of pushing vulnerable people into poverty and food insecurity. 

Addressing the impacts of COVID-19 not only minimises negative effects, but also provides an opportunity to rethink current frameworks around food supply and distribution chains, as well as social policies. Firstly, addressing logistical problems disrupting the supply chain calls for less trade restrictions that impede food exportation. This can open up the door for regional trade that allows for the diversification of input sources, and ensures food security in a logistically simpler way. Already, countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have signed an agreement to start working towards ensuring food security in the region (FAOb). This can create a long-lasting partnership that has positive effects outside of food security, and creates incentives for other industries.  

Furthermore, improving internal logistical hurdles calls for innovative solutions such as establishing collection points in rural areas. Collection points decrease interactions between producers as they could drop their produce in one location for it to be taken to the market, rather than individually transporting it, thus increasing the concentration of people and the probability of spreading COVID-19. While this can be used presently as a way of minimising risk and ensuring the continuation of food supply chains, collection points can also create a mechanism to increase market access for smallholders usually deterred from reaching wider markets because they cannot meet large aggregated demands from, for instance, restaurants or supermarkets. However, by aggregating their demand they would no longer be limited to local markets or subjected to the prices set by the middlemen, as by organising amongst several producers, they could have a stronger bargaining power. A network to connect the supply from smallholders with the demand can empower them and be a step towards overturning oppressive structures that disempower agricultural workers. Empowering the sector could also allow for changes in the way it is perceived, thus increasing its social value and making it more attractive for young workers. This can also be a step into modernising farming and enhancing its productivity to be able to feed the expected population in 2050, which entails improving food value and supply chains, and decreasing food waste. 

Responses to ensuring food security in light of COVID-19 also need to address the impacts on rural livelihoods through social protection programmes. These mechanisms need to be implemented to protect people’s incomes, ensure their food security, and prevent negative coping strategies such as selling land or assets. Similarly, they also need to support the production of food through providing key inputs, which can avoid a decrease of food productivity in the future. Ensuring both food production and consumption is harder in rural areas because often people are informal and hard to reach. To tackle this, countries need to rethink their targeting strategies and reform some of their existing social protection programmes, such as lifting conditionalities, or excepting people from meeting certain requirements to access them. 

Overall, while COVID-19 threatens food security, particularly in food importing countries and for the poor and vulnerable, there are several mechanisms that can be implemented to prevent this. In particular, these mechanisms can be an opportunity to re-imagine the normalcy that governed food systems, and shift from a globalised, industrial and hierarchical structure and interactions between providers and buyers, towards a more localised consumption, that relies on smallholders and empowers them through collective action to reach more distant markets and increase their incomes. Finally, the COVID-19 response also creates an opportunity to rethink the porosities within countries’ social policies and programmes, such as limited targeting and reach, and ensures that these are covered moving forward.

Article by Daniella Salazar Herrera. Please find Daniella's profile on our website.

Image credit: 



FAO. (2015). The food systems of the future need to be smarter, more efficient. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

FAO. (2020a). Daily Food Prices Monitor. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

FAO. (2020b). COVID-19 and the Risks to Food Supply Chains. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Hendrix, C. (2020). Wrong tools, wrong time: Food export bans in the time of COVID-19. Peterson Institute for International Economics.

ILO. (2020). ILO: As job losses escalate, nearly half of global workforce at risk of losing livelihoods. COVID-19: Stimulating the Economy and Employment.

La Republica. (2020). Desechan 15 toneladas de pulpa de cacao blanco a causa de crisis por el COVID-19. La Republica.

Torero, M. (2020). Without food, there can be no exit from the pandemic. Nature.

UNDESA. (2017). World population projected to reach 9.8 billion in 2050, and 11.2 billion in 2100. News.


Professor Ottoline Leyser DBE FRS elected as Regius Professor of Botany

last modified May 14, 2020 04:06 PM
Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser DBE FRS has been elected as Regius Professor of Botany and she will take up the post in October 2020. Her role as Director of the Sainsbury Laboratory will be taken over by Prof Henrik Jönsson.

In addition, Ottoline has accepted the post of CEO of UK Research & Innovation (UKRI), starting at the end of June. She will therefore be on secondment from the Department whilst she carries out this important national role. We are delighted to have a plant scientist at the centre of driving the UK scientific research and innovation sector. 

We will arrange a celebration for Ottoline's election, either virtual or in person, in October.

Please find out more here.

Image supplied by the University of Cambridge.


Food insecurity in the UK – why we need a new normal

last modified May 05, 2020 12:28 PM
Headlines on ‘Food Bank Britain’ have featured increasingly in our newspapers since the global financial crash in 2008, documenting the struggle of many people who rely on emergency food aid to feed themselves and their families.

The use of food banks is a last resort for people facing food insecurity (or food poverty). And seeking sustenance from a food bank is the tip of a much bigger iceberg – a symptom of deep-rooted food insecurity. But the UK has made remarkably little effort to formally measure food insecurity in the population as a whole. Without measurement and monitoring, it is difficult to say just how much of a problem food insecurity is in the UK. And that, of course, makes it easier to ignore.

Please read the full article by PhD student Amy Yau, Dr Jean Adams and Prof Martin White here.

Image sourced from original article. 


Local food solutions during the coronavirus crisis could have lasting benefits

last modified Apr 23, 2020 01:08 PM
A decade ago, food security in developing countries was regarded as a major challenge. The growing food insecurity in the poorest countries was seen a trigger for large scale migration to richer countries, where it threatened human security. It was argued that humanitarian assistance to the poorest countries - through food aid - was necessary to prevent a descent into violence and protracted conflict in the face of poor institutional capacity.

Please read the full article by Dr Shailaja Fennell here.

Image: Kenyan farmer. Credit: ICRAF on Flickr


Meet Nick Fradgley

last modified Apr 22, 2020 11:01 AM
PhD student Nick Fradgley travelled to Ethiopia in 2019, with the support of the Cambridge Global Food Security Early Career Researcher Travel Fund, to conduct research on how teff, sorghum, finger millet, and durum wheat are bred. Find out how he planned his trip, what he learned, and how this has broadened his views on the complex issues that surround food security in Ethiopia.

My interest in crop research started while I was working on local arable farms in Dorset where I grew up. After studying ecology and conservation for my undergraduate degree at Exeter University, I was able to apply this interest to a couple of jobs assisting in crop field trials. This developed from practical agrochemical testing to more academic plant breeding research, and I am currently in the second year of my PhD. My research is investigating the genetic control of wheat milling and baking quality traits with the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) and the University of Cambridge, as well as breeding company (DSV UK) who are industrial partners in the project. My PhD is funded by the BBSRC

I am studying wheat breeding, and focusing on the genetic control of milling and baking quality traits. As wheat breeding has mainly focused on yield, this has been at the expense of some quality traits, such as protein content, which trade off against each other. My project aims to uncover the genetic control of these quality traits so that breeders can more efficiently predict quality, and can simultaneously select for yield and other important traits to develop sustainable and productive milling quality wheat varieties.

Developments in crop breeding over the last century have been crucial in ensuring adequate food supply for the rapidly growing global population. However, purely focusing on maximising productivity has, in some ways, resulted in an inefficient and unsustainable food system where many crops, such as wheat, which could feed people directly, are all too often used to feed livestock. So ensuring that high quality wheat varieties are suitable for a productive and sustainable food system is key for future food security.

After working on a small project looking at zinc content in Ethiopian teff varieties, I was fascinated by the novel and underutilised crops of Ethiopia, which is a centre of crop diversity. In particular, crops such as teff, sorghum and millets are known as orphan crops as there has been little research and breeding work conducted on them, and they have existed as farmer land races (locally adapted and traditional crop varieties). Building on contacts made by colleagues at NIAB working on the MillNET_i project, I visited several research institutes in and around Addis Ababa. These included the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR), who are developing breeding programmes for improved teff varieties, ICRISAT, who are working with smallholder farming groups, and the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute (EBI), which safeguards valuable crop genetic resources in a gene bank in Addis Ababa. Here I saw some really impressive examples of how they are using crop genetic diversity to develop improved varieties of crops including teff, sorghum, finger millet, and durum wheat that they have bred to deal with issues such as lodging (where the crop falls over making harvesting difficult), drought or water logging, and pest and disease resistance. All of this is done with limited technologies and resources.

More broadly, these visits were extremely valuable for me to gain an insight into the complex issues surrounding food security in this rapidly developing country. For example, Ethiopia’s economy is expanding with the help of foreign investment, smallholder farming is scaling up, and people are moving towards more urban lifestyles and diets. Additionally, Africa is experiencing more severe climate change effects than the rest of the world. It is clear to me that crop research tools and resources created in countries such as the UK could be usefully applied to assist with Ethiopia’s complex food security challenges.

Initially, I made contact with the researchers I met with through email, but it was difficult to make clear plans in advance this way. Mainly because of cultural differences. It came down to just turning up with a list of phone numbers, which was quite stressful, but things worked out well in the end!

Logistically, finding safe and reliable transport was a real issue. It was impossible to work out where any of the busses were meant to be going, and the traffic in Addis Ababa was chaotic. However, contacts at the institutes I was visiting were helpful in arranging transport.

Thanks to the contacts and ideas I developed on the trip, we have already managed to gain further funding from the GCRF for a short project to develop some genetic mapping and phenotyping resources with the teff breeding programme at EIAR. It is very exciting to be working with such a unique and underutilised crop.

I don’t like to plan these things too far in advance, but when I finish my PhD in a couple of years I hope to ensure my further work is on the applied side of crop breeding, whether in academia or industry.

It has been great for me to see research and its wider implications in a more global context than just wheat in the UK. I have definitely had to think about what the wider socioeconomic and ethical issues are surrounding crop improvement in the developing world. 

When planning research trips, obvious things like visas, vaccinations and risk assessments are important to sort out well in advance, but otherwise, a degree of flexibility is important for making things happen. It is very easy to have blinkered views of the specific aims of a PhD project, so it has been really useful and refreshing to take time to look at the bigger picture, and think about how my research fits into it. 

Please find Nick's profile on our website.

Photos supplied by Nick Fradgley.


Meet Dorien Braam

last modified Apr 09, 2020 12:46 PM
In 2019, PhD student Dorien Braam conducted some of her fieldwork in Pakistan with the support of the Cambridge Global Food Security Early Career Researcher Travel Fund. Find out more about her field trip, how she collected information, and her thoughts on conducting international research trips.

I am from The Netherlands, where I studied architecture at the Delft University of Technology. Subsequently, I worked in a variety of roles across Asia, Eastern Africa and Europe with the United Nations, international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) and The Netherlands government. I focused on disaster displacement, human rights and shelter in those roles, before returning to academia via a Masters degree in International Animal Health at the University of Edinburgh. I started my PhD in Veterinary Medicine in 2018, funded by the Gates Cambridge Scholarship. I study the prevalence of zoonoses - diseases transmitted between animals and humans - in displaced populations, and plan to submit my thesis in 2022. I applied to the University of Cambridge because of its PhD course structure, the research interests of my supervisor, and the availability of resources. 

I study the risk of zoonotic disease transmission in displaced populations, addressing some of the most pressing global challenges of the next decades: climate change, displacement and emerging infectious diseases. Disease transmission between wildlife and livestock, the increased risk of zoonoses in areas where people and animals with weakened immune systems live closely together, and the emergence of infectious diseases among native host communities are areas that need to be increasingly researched. Gaining a better understanding of disease prevalence and dynamics, and control and prevention, will improve the well-being of both humans and animals, with the aim of influencing and improving institutional responses.

My research is important to food security because, besides providing food in terms of meat and dairy products, livestock is an important asset to subsistence farmers. They use the animals for draught power, and their manure to support agriculture. The loss of livestock in displacement may result in a lower nutritional status, with direct implications to human health.

The Early Career Researcher Travel Fund award contributed to my fieldwork in Sindh province in Pakistan. I worked together with the Planning and Development Department, Research and Training Wing of the Government of Sindh, the National Rural Support Programme (NRSP), and the WWF to identify and interview communities affected by disaster displacement to determine their (animal) health risks. Preliminary findings were shared with the Research and Training Wing to inform policy development and livestock responses in displacement. This was with the aim of securing livelihoods, food supply, and nutritional status.

I use a qualitative case study methodology, consisting of semi-structured interviews with experts in health, livestock and disaster management, as well as households in affected communities. These interviews are supported by (grey) literature reviews and secondary quantitative data. In this area that lacks primary data and research, I find that my methodology and subsequent analysis using a grounded theory approach works well.

One of my main challenges is that there is little awareness and evidence available regarding zoonoses. Stakeholders often work in silos, and actors in health and displacement rarely include the facilitation of livestock during human movement. I found that structuring the interviews around three separate but interlinked thematic areas of health, livestock and the actual displacement helps with organising thoughts and supports the analysis.

I will use the data collected from Pakistan as a chapter in my thesis. Meanwhile, I am currently preparing for additional fieldwork in Jordan and Bangladesh, after which I hope to be able to provide a more comprehensive overview of zoonotic disease transmission risks in different displacement situations.

Before moving to Cambridge, I worked as researcher for a global research consultancy that I co-founded. I am keen to continue conducting research at both practical and academic levels once I finish my PhD.

I am very grateful to all the people who helped me during my fieldwork in Sindh. Their support and input have been invaluable in being able to interpret interviewees responses and understand better the challenges faced by communities, as well as those faced by authorities and humanitarian organisations.

I believe it is most important to ensure in-depth knowledge on the country, location and communities that you are planning to study. For instance, I chose Pakistan because I was able to build upon an extensive network of friends and colleagues I made when I lived there previously. I would advise all researchers to establish local connections who can provide support.

Please find Dorien's profile on our website.

Photos supplied by Dorien Braam (second from right, first photo).