Fostering Research Capacity Around Food Systems: Harvesting Lessons From PhD Experiences


by Trang Nguyen, Laura Trijsburg, Daniel Mekonnen, and Xavier Tezzo | December 21, 2021

Performing food systems research is a complex undertaking given the interconnectivity of all processes spanning different scientific disciplines, including but not limited to the policy, economic, social and nutrition fields. Food Systems for Healthier Diets' (FSHD) is a flagship program of the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH) that aims to foster food systems research. Over the course of the program’s five-year span, FSHD directly involved a total of 12 PhD candidates from different geographies with research covering a broad range of topics from across the food system, illustrated in the heatmap below (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Research focus of PhD candidates attached to the FSHD, adapted from the HLPE (2017) food system framework, building on the self-assessment of their focal research foci by the 12 PhD candidates attached to FSHD. The red-scale shading reflects the aggregated level of attention granted to each components of the food system.

To harvest lessons from these experiences, the program recently held a learning workshop with all of the PhD candidates. During the workshop, the students shared their personal experiences navigating the complexities of food systems research and discussed their motivations and struggles, before collectively reflecting on how to further improve research capacity in this burgeoning field.

Key points from these discussions include:

1.Articulating a research project that is relevant for policy

“Doing research that is relevant for policy has been a key motivation.”

Name: Tesfaye Hailu Bekele

Research: Development and Evaluation of the Ethiopian Food-Based Dietary Guidelines and Healthy Eating Index

As shown with the recent United Nations Food System Summit (UNFSS), interest in food systems has been growing in the highest political spheres. As a result, research implemented under FSHD has been particularly relevant for policy makers in each of the program’s four focus countries: Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Viet Nam. This relevance and the eventual usefulness of their research was reported by PhD candidates to be a strong motivational factor. As Tesfaye noted: “I feel really lucky that insights from our research on Food-Based Dietary Guidelines were eventually integrated by the Government of Ethiopia. It is very common for PhD students to spend a lot of time researching a subject without necessarily knowing or seeing direct application of their work.”


2. Encouraging multidisciplinary perspectives on food issues

“Exchanging across disciplines has fostered innovating perspectives.”

Name: Giulia Pastori

Research: Increasing fruit and vegetable intake in low-income population in Vietnam and Nigeria through food system innovations

PhD candidates typically work under the mandate of a chair group or department with a certain expertise, but this should not limit their reach to other disciplines. This is especially important for food systems research, with its interdisciplinary nature. Being part of a big research program such as A4NH facilitates exchanges across fields and disciplines. Giulia's experience resonated well with other students: “Even though I’m originally more of a quantitative researcher, I've learned so much from doing qualitative field work. Having access to such a diversity of advisors and experts has been really useful to approach my research from different angles.”


3. Thinking broad but remaining realistic and focused

“There is a need to remain cautious about research feasibility.”

Name: Latiful Haque

Research: Effective Policy Strategies and Instruments for Transforming Food Systems towards Healthier Diets in Bangladesh

Another feeling shared by many of the students was a sense of being sometimes overwhelmed by the range of research avenues that food systems have to offer. As explained by Latiful “As a PhD, you are given quite a lot of leeway on refining your research focus and deciding how to approach it. The problem with food systems is that there are so many different avenues one could explore in more depth. But time and money are the limiting factors in the end so you need to be cautious about what you can realistically achieve”. Students emphasized that defining a clear study plan at the onset was critical, but that you should always be ready for adapting along the way, particularly in recent years with the COVID-19 pandemic.


4. Remaining up-to-date with the latest developments in the field

“There is a need to stay on top of new developments in such a rapidly evolving research field”

Name: Ursula Trubswasser

Research: Urban food environments and adolescents’ diets in Ethiopia

Food systems research has only recently taken flight, with new methodologies and concepts continuously emerging. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, gave rise to new research foci and directions. For early career researchers such as PhD candidates, it is a constant challenge to keep abreast of the latest developments in their field, while also preparing for their future beyond the program. As explained by Ursula: “Because food system research is moving so fast, the ability to map and share new findings and experiences is critical. It can sometimes be overwhelming, but it helps us positioning our research.”


Building on our discussions with PhD candidates, we identify two key takeaways for fostering food systems research moving forward.

  • Facilitating exchanges between students along the way

Students would benefit from more collaboration and exchange along their PhD journey. By sharing their respective work, they not only develop a sense of 'shared efforts' but also reduce overlaps and maximize synergies between their research projects. Now that online work has become the norm, such exchanges could be facilitated via platforms such as Teams or Slack. These can, in turn, be linked to more formal sharing channels, thereby contributing to the creation of a data hub for each country to maximize data sharing.

  • Designing complementary research projects

In the same vein, to make the best of A4NH research efforts and effectively foster synergies across PhD projects, it appears essential to better plan how the different research projects from different disciplines complement one another within the larger program. This would help students not just to gain more depth in their own areas, but also to put their findings in a broader food system perspective. This was nicely put by Inge Brouwer, FSHD flagship leader:

“As a colleague of mine said, you need grazers and moles. Moles go deep with robust methodology to find an answer to your question and then you need grazers who are embedding it into a broader context."

Trang Nguyen is a post-doc researcher, formerly a PhD candidate, with the Development Economics Group (DEC) at Wageningen University & Research (WUR). Laura Trijsburg is a PhD researcher in Human Nutrition and Health with the Global Nutrition group at WUR. Daniel Mekonnen is a post-doc researcher with the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health program at WUR. Xavier Tezzo is a PhD candidate with the Environmental Policy Group (ENP) at WUR.


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