How Can Students Develop Food of the Future?
What is agroecology?
According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), while our current agriculture systems have managed to supply massive amounts of food to global markets, they’ve done so at a monumental expense. Deforestation, water scarcity, biodiversity loss, soil depletion and extremely high levels of greenhouse gas emissions are a few of the casualties of the “resource-intensive” approach to global food needs. However, this is poised to change -- in large part due to consumer demands and changing beliefs about whether the toll is worth the outcome.
Numi Organic Tea founder and CEO Ahmed Rahim recently told Forbes, “The biggest food conglomerates in the world are taking heed and listening to the demands of consumers – these companies realize that they need to make enormous, systemic changes for the better of our people and planet in order to stay competitive.”
This is where agroecology comes in. It is defined by the Agroecology Fund as farming that “centers on food production that makes the best use of nature’s goods and services while not damaging these resources.” Aligned with many sustainable farming approaches, agroecology’s goal is to nurture healthy landscapes while growing food for the world. It does this in several ways, including by improving food yields; strengthening fair markets; enhancing balanced ecosystems, and utilizing knowledge and customs that have been relied upon for generations.
Despite its areas of alignment with other sustainable farming strategies, agroecology also differs from other approaches to sustainable development. “Rather than tweaking the practices of unsustainable agricultural systems, agroecology seeks to transform food and agricultural systems, addressing the root causes of problems in an integrated way and providing holistic and long-term solutions,” explains the FAO.
The need for innovation
Industrial food production has not only taken a toll on the environment, but global hunger and malnutrition remain. Agroecology heralds a better way. Not only that, but, according to UN agroecology consulting specialist Doina Popusoi, there’s no better time than now to reevaluate our food systems with an eye on sustainability and justice. Popusoi proposes that agroecology has the potential to reverse global hunger while simultaneously reversing environmental damage.
So what does all this mean for the future of food? According to a report from the UBS Global Wealth Management Chief Investment Office (CIO), “we are on the cusp of a new agricultural revolution” that will see massive changes to how we farm, ship and consume food.
These changes will also be big business: CIO predicts food innovation will become a $700 billion market by 2030 -- five times as much as the $135 billion it is today with significant growth areas predicted to include the plant-based protein segment; smart farming and online food delivery; seed treatment; and seed science. According to the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, meanwhile, accelerating the transition to agroecology will be a “core solution” to the future of food.
This isn’t to say the shift to agroecology won’t be without its share of challenges, including above all else the need for innovation. “Agroecology is something that requires a lot of local solutions and local creativity in terms of moving the food from the production source to the consumers,” says Agroecology Fund Director Daniel Moss. In addition to distribution and packaging challenges, climate change further complicates agroecology as weather patterns and global temperatures become less predictable.
Despite the challenges, agroecology is widely considered to be one of the most resilient models of food delivery -- a belief which has been reinforced by the pandemic. “What we are seeing in COVID-19 is the kind of challenges to the very globalized food system that we have in place right now. It is a real wake up call to a lot of people that are very concerned about their food supply in times of crisis. We see a real opportunity for agroecology to strengthen,” adds Moss.
Former FAO Director-General Jose Graziano da Silva echoes Moss’s sentiment, “We need to promote a transformative change in the way that we produce and consume food. We need to put forward sustainable food systems that offer healthy and nutritious food, and also preserve the environment. Agroecology can offer several contributions to this process.”
Indeed, while agroecology may look backwards, this is only to look forward in the most holistic way. “Agroecological sciences offer just the kinds of innovations small-scale farmers need to increase soil fertility, raise productivity, improve food and nutrition security, and build climate resilience,” assets Timothy A. Wise for Food Tank.
In addition to opportunities for technological-scientific innovation, agroecology encompasses other forms of innovation, including know-how innovation, organizational innovation, and social innovation.
Of course, entrepreneurship and innovation go hand in hand, and a new breed of farmers are leaning towards agroecological practices. “They represent a group of change agents, or grassroots entrepreneurs who might be much needed now when conventional agriculture is literally destroying the planet,” argues ecological entrepreneurship and sustainable food systems PhD candidate Maxim Vlasov.
Why study agroecology in France?
If you’re an aspiring agroecology or agriculture student, there may be no better place to learn while immersing yourself in a culture that has prioritized this field of study for years. In 2013, French Minister of Agriculture Stéphane Le Foll announced his intent to make France Europe’s agroecology leader. One of his primary methods of reaching this goal? Integrating agriculture into educational standards. “Agricultural education is at the heart of it all,” he said. It follows that France’s higher education institutions are on the frontlines of agroecology research and innovation.
In 2018, meanwhile, the World Economic Forum hailed France as “the world’s most food sustainable country,” due to its tackling of food waste, promotion of healthy lifestyles, and adoption of eco-farming.
When it comes to leading the agroecology charge on France’s higher education scene, Isara is a standout. Situated in Lyon, a leader in environmental awareness, Isara is internationally renowned for excellence in two pivotal areas: Agroecology and sustainable food systems and Innovation and entrepreneurship.
For more than a decade, Isara has kept agroecology and sustainable food systems at the center of its training, research, and development policies. The goal? To prepare both bachelor’s and master’s degree students for leading roles in the areas of agriculture and food -- both domestically and internationally.
In order to truly prepare students to effect the most change, Isara builds innovation and entrepreneurship training into its engineering program and international English taught master. Specifically, Isara prepares students to innovate through the development of Foodtech projects. “Though all engineering schools talk about entrepreneurship and innovation, few actually walk the walk. At Isara, not only do we experiment with it, but we are in complete synchronization with real-life conditions, allowing us to update our teaching methods in real time,” the school explain.
With the planet in peril, the future of food -- and the future, in general -- relies on innovations in agroecology toward sustainability. This is cutting-edge work with a tangible impact. For students interested in adding their talents, skills and passion to securing tomorrow’s food supply while also acknowledging the social, cultural, economic and ecological issues, there’s no better place to do so than at France’s Isara.
Article written in association with Isara.
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Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.
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