The roots of the ACFWS can be traced back to the Centre for World Food Studies (Dutch name: Stichting Onderzoek Wereldvoedselvoorziening van de Vrije Universiteit, SOW-VU, see www.sow.vu.nl). In fact, the ACWFS incorporates the former staff of this institute, and with it, the methodological assets as well as network and experience. SOW-VU was founded in 1977 by the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Agriculture (later embedded in the Ministry of Economic Affairs) and the VU University, as an institutional embedding of the Club of Rome research group on “Food for a doubling population”. The contributions of SOW-VU has been wide ranging, but with a clear focus on the use of Applied General Equilibrium (AGE) analysis in a very broad sense. At the 25th anniversary of SOW-VU in 2004, Director Michiel Keyzer summarized the approach as:
“Yes, we are basically modelers and ever since its creation SOW-VU has remained, critics might say confined, within the sterner branches of mainstream economics, embracing the general equilibrium-welfare economics paradigm, and delving deep into mathematical programming. … Despite the fact that some found our approaches too and perhaps unnecessarily complex, or maybe even inadequate, we never abandoned this basic path, which essentially amounts to taking economic theory seriously from beginning to end.”
The deeply interdisciplinary focus of SOW-VU combined with the adherence to AGE as key approach implied that major scientific innovations have been developed to be able to capture the realities of the complex systems studied. Hence, spatially explicit modelling – with units as small as 30 arcseconds - responded to the need for spatial heterogeneity in production possibilities, climatic variations and access to services as well as infrastructure, but required tailor-made algorithms to be able to solve these high-dimensional optimizations. Such models have been used to model demand and supply responses, but also generated optimal flows between the units, be it flows of goods, water, people or livestock. In a parallel path, data processing capacity had to be built to enable researches to feed these models with spatially explicit data from different disciplinary sources and to do integrated statistical analysis linking indicators for nutritional status to economic, social and locational parameters.
The relationships between the determinants of development were investigated from the perspective of various disciplines: economics, agronomy and earth and life sciences. Quantitative modeling and the development of new, innovative tools was the core business of the SOW-VU. This provided a broad knowledge base from which the SOW-VU performed an advisory role to Dutch ministries and international institutions, and executed or participated in externally funded projects with a strong research component. It also supported capacity building projects in developing countries by maintaining research partnerships and the joint implementation of projects or training modules.
Although the research agenda consisted of many crosscutting issues the following classification into four themes provides a comprehensive summary of activities. As can be seen, there is significant overlap with the four pillars of the ACWFS
- Development of new tools
- Poverty reduction
- measurement of poverty
- the analysis of the determinants of poverty
- Management of natural resources
- Agricultural and food policy
During the decades during which SOW-VU has been active, it has achieved international recognition not only for its contribution to knowledge and policy making in the domain of FNS, but also for its demonstrated ability to develop analytical tools to assist with the analysis of critical analytic and policy related questions. Notable amongst the tools developed by SOW-VU are the empirical, data-driven, country-wide models that capture economic processes but also include physical, environmental, geographic and social/cultural constraints and interactions. These tools, complemented by models, methods and tools that have been developed by researchers from other VU departments, will present the proposed new VU Center with a useful base from which to embark on new ventures.