Hungry for change – education in Sustainable Food Systems

Last changed: 15 November 2021
Students in apple garden. Photo.

The food system encompasses a complex mix of activities, processes and sectors, from production, processing, distribution to consumption. Hence, making food systems sustainable is laden with many challenges, requiring major societal changes and the transformation of the way we produce and consume food. The experts of tomorrow therefore require a new way of thinking about food systems that is holistic and transformational, and an education that provides them with the tools and capacity to grapple with these complex sustainability challenges.

The Masters programme in Sustainable Food Systems opened for students in 2018, offering knowledge and skills development that deals with the complexities, challenges and sustainability solutions across the food system. The two year interdisciplinary programme allows students to engage with a variety of experts and actors within the food sector, preparing them with real-life experience of the challenges present within the food system.

Why do we need a Sustainable Food Systems programme?

The global food system is a complex web, which has environmental, societal, political, economic and cultural significance. The processes and activities within food systems depend upon a range of resources, infrastructure, institutions and regulations that have a range of socio-economic and environmental consequences. The way we produce, process, distribute and consume food are strong drivers for system changes relating to, for example, environmental and climate change, migration, urbanisation and dietary change.

Sabine Sampels, Programme Study Director for Sustainable Food Systems, explains the significance of this education for the world today and in the future:

– We need to urgently transition to a more sustainable production and consumption of food, both to reduce the effect of food production on climate change but also to nourish a growing population! We all have to eat, and we need nutritious food. So we need experts with a broad overview of the whole food chain to make all steps more sustainable without losing the quality of food. We need people who can actually judge what is more sustainable and guide the direction of change. We need education that encourages innovation so that people can identify new ideas and processes of change and apply these out in the world.

Interdisciplinary education is required for the complex challenges we face today

From staff to students, the participants in the courses on the programme come from a range of backgrounds. Sabine is a food chemist and her primary research interest relates to lipids in animal foods with regard to nutritional value but she also has a strong interest in sustainability science. The variety of courses on the programme from management perspectives, bioeconomy, food security, consumer behavior to food waste, mean that a variety of teachers and researchers from disciplinary backgrounds meet to create interdisciplinary encounters. Sabine explains that:

– The questions the different courses address range from primary production (land-living animals, aquatic animals, plants) over processing, transport, consumer behavior, innovation, waste management… which gives students a holistic and whole systems perspective allowing them to contribute to solutions at different points along the whole chain using a wide variety of knowledge.

The students also come from a range of academic backgrounds, which despite its challenges, has positive outcomes for learning and knowledge-sharing across disciplinary boundaries, says Sabine:

– The students bring their own expertise and can learn from each other and combine this with the new knowledge and apply their diverse knowledge together to find new solutions. There are challenges with this approach as the students start with different prerequisites and it is important to have the courses on a level so all can follow independent to their background, but the advantages are greater than the challenges.

Food&Cities form an important thematic area for education on Sustainable Food Systems

Food systems are inherently connected to urban centers and are deeply affected by processes of urbanization. The majority of the global population live in urban areas and urban populations are expected to increase in the future. How do cities get enough food to feed their populations a healthy and sustainable diet? How to we ensure equal access to food for everybody? What does this mean for the relationships between rural food-producing areas and urban food-consuming centers?

Only by taking a holistic, systems perspective can we understand the complexity of the inter-relationships between food systems and urban development, which is why the emerging field of interdisciplinary research and education around the thematic area of ‘food’ and ‘cities’ is so important.

– I think the meeting of food and urban areas is hugely important! The questions are many, ranging from questions of production like urban agriculture to better connecting rural (food producing) areas to urban (food consuming) areas. There are a whole range of issues again within these broad questions relating to, transport, consumer behavior, to the sustainable management of food waste. Figuring out how to create possibilities for circularity within the food system rests upon engaging with urban areas as well as rural food producers; and understanding how consumers and businesses (like food retailers and restaurants) engage with these concepts and questions of sustainability.

Why do students take this programme?

Students come from both Sweden and abroad to study on this Masters programme and have a range of academic and professional expertise. Many of the students who take this programme have worked in areas within the food chain, and many working with issues of sustainability.

One student explains why they left the food sector to learn more about sustainability within the food system:

– I have a bachelor in Food Studies from The New School for Public Engagement, graduated in 2014. Since then I’ve been working as a produce buyer at a retail store in New York as well as director of sustainability and restaurant manager at a restaurant group here in Stockholm. I wanted to go back to academia to learn new things and broaden my knowledge in this field. My work was really interesting but I sometimes feel you get stuck in a “bubble”. I want to learn more about the broad subject of food systems, such as the different theories being applied when presenting solutions. I’m personally very interested in the waste-part of food systems (Student 1). 

Another student shares their journey back to education from the food industry:

I am a trained baker, have a Bachelors in Food Science, and have worked as a quality manager in the dairy industry before I joined the program. I want to learn skills and tools which I can use to contribute my share to make food systems more sustainable. The program draws a holistic picture of food systems and I can also find out where my skills can make the biggest impact (student 2).  

Prior to joining the programme, many students are already aware of the complexity of the food system and the different sustainability challenges facing areas from production to consumption; and issues affecting the environment, society and the economy. Students want to use this programme to expand and deepen their knowledge about different sectors within the food system. Here two students share what they would like to do after completing the programme:

– I would like to contribute to the improvement of livelihoods along the food chain and be part of the movement towards responsible consumption and production (Student 1).

– I hope I will have the academic language for all solutions presented and for my career I would love to work for a bigger company that is facing a lot of challenges when it comes to sustainability, such as McDonalds or similar (Student 2). 

Whether working with producers growing our food, or with multi-national corporations making their operations more sustainable, taking a holistic and interdisciplinary approach to the study of sustainable food systems is important to students. The combination of knowledge, methods, theories and real-life case studies within the programme is appealing, enabling students to grapple with the complexity of the sustainability challenges facing our food systems, and contributing to a more sustainable world.

Students express their desire to contribute to change within the food system; and how studying on the programme in Sustainable Food System can help equip students with the right tools and competences that will enable them to go out into the world to act and create such change.


Sustainable Food Systems - Master's Programme

The Sustainable Food Systems Master's Programme at SLU is a 2-year interdisciplinary programme that attracts students with a wide range of academic backgrounds from all over the world. This comprehensive programme provides a broad knowledge of sustainable food systems; the raw produce through the primary production system, processing, distribution and consumption. 

More about the programme