The history of food in Europe is long and storied. Deeply rooted agricultural and place-based food traditions are now experiencing renewed attention, as global interest in food origins grows. In 1986, the Slow Food movement was founded in Italy as a protest against fast-food chain McDonald’s encroachment on historic sites in Rome. Slow Food is now a vast, grass-roots international organization.
As the food movement has grown in Europe, opportunities to study food have also expanded. An example can be seen in the unique partnership between four universities—in Denmark, Germany, Austria and Poland—that several years ago came together to create the EUR-Organic program. EUR-Organic offers a cross-university master’s degree in Organic Food Chains, with students studying at two of the partner universities.
In 2004, Slow Food International founded the University of Gastronomic Sciences, in northern Italy. London’s School of Oriental and African Studies created its Food Studies Centre in 2013. The Geography of Food program at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences was established in 2011.
Pro Journo’s second food studies webinar (video also at end of post) brought together Dr. Jakob Sehested from EUR-Organic member Aarhus University and Dr. Stefan Flueckiger from the Zurich University of Applied Sciences to discuss their disciplines and a common yet changing thread—food.
A Diverse Field
Although the professors on our panel work in very different departments, and in different countries, they are linked by their interest in a more sustainable food system.
Sehested has a background focused on the nutritional physiology of cattle. His research looks at the importance of minerals in cattle health, and he is currently working on a different concept for milk production. He describes it as “very much about resource-use efficiency and environmental impact of dairy cows.”
In contrast, Flueckiger’s work focuses on business and agricultural sustainability. He works with his students to develop metrics and tools that measure the social and economic impacts of sustainability.
Even with their different areas of expertise, both professors recognize the importance of expanding their focus to the broader food system, for themselves and for their students.
Asked about the potential for future development of the EUR-Organic program, Sehested said, “We are attracting very good students who are going for this program, with very different backgrounds. We are still striving to develop the potential from having those very different backgrounds together.”
Organic Production Driving Global Food Production
In the future, it is unlikely that food production will be completely organic or completely industrial. It must be a compromise, right? Flueckiger asked Sehested how future global food production will incorporate organics.
“I see organic production as having some very high ideals about the concept of food production as being sustainable,” he replied. “So I very much see organic production as a driver for the development of conventional production.”
Sehested noted that organic production is a set of ideals we are working toward, with food production becoming more sustainable and resource-use efficient. This is evident as the global food system becomes ever more connected.
Food for the Future
Over and over again, we find ourselves confronted with the consequences of industrial food production—things like the recent attention to pink slime and the destruction of the Malaysian rain forest for palm oil production. At times, it can feel as if industrial food production is moving quickly and continually away from organic and sustainable production. A recent dystopian commercial by Chipotle captured a sense of what industrial food production looks and feels like today.
Talking to these scholars, however, offered a slightly more optimistic view.
“I think some of the very large issues in modern food production [are] about sustainability, resource use, animal welfare, product quality and safety, and those are really co-aspects of organic food production,” said Sehested, who added that he believes the entire food system is moving toward increased sustainability.
This is true not only for production. From Flückiger’s perspective, opportunities for sustainability in food supply chains are also increasing. “Environmental markets are rapidly evolving and highly dynamic in Switzerland, I think in [America] as well, as the economy becomes more sustainability oriented,” he said.
As agriculture becomes more sustainability-oriented, it will no doubt become more globally focused as well. Currently, Denmark, though a small country, is a major food exporter. Among other things, it is one of the world’s largest exporters of pork, to countries all over the world. Switzerland, on the other hand, imports two-thirds of its food. These two countries show the increasing inter-relationship between countries and their food supplies, a trend not lost on our panel’s professors.
“I think this global focus will take a very important role in the future,” Flueckiger said.
Disclaimer: The Geography of Food program at The Zurich University of Applied Sciences is a grantee of Mercator Foundation Switzerland, which also funded our coverage of “Organic Solutions in Global Food Affairs.”