In August 2015, 25 students from 17 different countries spent two weeks on an organic farm in Switzerland, discussing the question of how to feed the world and how to do it without harming human health, the environment or people’s communities.
The woman responsible for bringing the students together was Michelle Grant, executive director of the World Food System Center, an alternative educational institute based in Switzerland that aims to bring together young brains to find solutions for the world’s food crisis by taking an alternative approach to education.
There are currently 7.3 billion people living on our planet, and their diet patterns include more meat and dairy consumption. This is putting pressure not only on the environment, as the number of livestock is growing, but also on our current food system. And while food scarcity prevails in some parts of the world, over-nutrition – or overeating – causes major health problems in other parts. This diet paradox calls for a change in the current food system.
“Food is the most critical challenge at the interface of human and environmental systems,” says Grant. It’s “a challenge that touches upon all axes of sustainability, while being something we each connect to on a daily basis.”
To address these challenges, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich established the World Food System Centre (WFSC) in 2011. The Center is based on the belief that practical solutions need collaboration between people at the local level and those making decisions higher up.
The WFSC focuses on research, education, and outreach. Currently their researchers primarily look at sustainable production systems, healthy food and the resilience of food markets. In education, they organize summer schools, offer extracurricular courses, support alumnae and encourage student driven research. The WFSC also aims to widen its scope with public lectures, and fosters cooperation with partners involved all along the food supply chains.
Michelle Grant could not imagine herself working on anything other than one of those critical questions. She has a tight schedule. When I met her in the hallway of the WFSC, she had just come back from another meeting. With a friendly smile she led me to her spacious office, overlooking the center of Zurich. Her desk was neatly organized and so were her answers to my questions.
“Food system challenges can only be solved if we work together across both disciplines and sectors,” she says. Grant believes that one of the best hopes for altering the way our food supply system works is by changing how we educate those involved in its day-to-day operations.
To this end, over 100 students have taken part in the training programs organized by the WFSC, where they had the chance to learn skills outside the traditional classroom.
“In a traditional academic track, young researchers are often required to focus on one very specific topic,” says Grant. In WFSC courses, students are encouraged to look at areas outside their own expertise as well as share their respective knowledge on various topics.
Those students have gone on to very different careers, directly or indirectly linked to food systems, working in government or industry, as well as for nonprofits or international organizations. Yet, their network has kept them connected to one another and to the questions of food security and sustainability. The WFSC organizes events and reunions to help them stay in touch and continue sharing their knowledge after graduation.
“It’s really great to see, how the course shaped their mind and how they keep connected in the future via the alumnae network,” says Grant.
Grant, herself, has had a zig-zagging career. She started off as an undergraduate in chemical and environmental engineering, before undertaking a master’s degree in management, technology and economics.
She then began her professional career as a water engineer, but quickly linked it to the broader topic of food. For her, water and food cannot be regarded as two separate topics. She managed to establish a foothold in different disciplines, which she now links back together.
She still has an engineer’s respect for technology but doesn’t believe more of it alone can solve the problems she’s looking at.
“Technology will always be a part, but it should never be seen as the silver bullet,” she says. “Engineers need to take environmental, social and political aspects into consideration from the very beginning of conceptualization.”
Grant and the WFSC want researchers to reach outside academia and share their knowledge with those who can apply it. The Center’s courses are intended to train researchers in the abilities needed to better express their ideas and the organizational skills needed to display them, skills which many young academics traditionally lack, she says.
“Researchers should not only focus on publications – they have to be open to connect with other stakeholders,” says Grant. “Many younger researchers do not necessarily have the skills or the experience to work within multidisciplinary teams, run workshops, or to organize a conference.”
Supplementary types of education, such as the summer school in Switzerland, are meant to fill this gap and provide the next generation with a layered set of skills, allowing them to work across disciplines. The idea is that “opportunities and experiences like the summer school in Switzerland, which are outside but linked to the traditional education system, are much needed,” she says. “If we want to drive change, we need to expose the next generation to different ways of thinking and working.”
For her it is evident that the key lies in education, creating a next generation of academics, field-workers and officials that is able to work together to eventually make a change in the food system.