Monte Verità, the “mountain of truth”, is an inspiring location in Ticino, southern Switzerland that has inspired new ways of thinking since the 1900s. The hilltop was first settled by a group of idealists from northern Europe who wanted to explore new ways of living based on the principles of freedom, simplicity, cooperation, nudism, vegetarian diets and a respect for the natural environment. A lot has changed since then – for a start, guests are now fully clothed – and today the venue is home to the Congressi Stefano Franscini, the ETH Zurich conference center. However, the location and its unique atmosphere still provide the ideal backdrop for inspiring and creative discussions about ways of shaping a sustainable future.

This was indeed the case at the end of June 2015, when the ETH Zurich World Food System Center brought a group of 100 thought leaders from 25 countries and 57 different organizations to Monte Verità for six days. Their objective: to collectively tackle the challenges facing our global food system.

Historic image of Monte Verita
Earlier times at Monte Verità. (Photo: monteverita.org)

This gathering aimed to be a little different than an ordinary academic conference. Firstly, the group of participants came not only from academia but also from other sectors. Representatives of universities and research institutions worked together with colleagues from international organizations such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Swiss institutions such as the Federal Office for Agriculture (BLW), Agroscope, and the Research Institute for Organic Agriculture (FiBL) as well as companies including Nestlé, Syngenta, and Bühler. Secondly, the focus was cross-disciplinary collaboration, learning from one another about viable solutions and identifying emerging topics that need increased attention.

Emerging topics in food systems research

For many participants, the conference was exceptional in its diversity: in terms of topics discussed, disciplines represented, approaches to problem-solving, and experiences shared. We tackled an incredibly broad range of themes and encouraged all participants to move out of their comfort zones and make connections to bigger issues. This allowed us to explore a number of emerging topics, where interdisciplinary collaboration and new cross-sector solutions are urgently needed. A selection of these topics is highlighted below:

  • Addressing the “double burden” of malnutrition, which refers to under- and over-nutrition (overweight and obesity) increasingly occurring within the same population. We can no longer consider these as separate issues of north versus south, or of rural versus urban areas. We are now seeing all of these challenges playing out within the same countries, communities and even households. Indeed, much evidence now points to the fact that those who are born undernourished tend to have a higher risk of being overweight or obese as adults and dying of non-communicable diseases.
  • Reframing the challenges of food systems as “wicked problems” – meaning that these are not only complex problems but ones for which there are no simple solutions, as each solution will in fact lead to new problems. Tackling wicked problems requires an understanding of causal factors and the engagement of stakeholders to understand their differing interests, needs and relationships. Power over decision making becomes an important factor, thus developing interventions in food systems requires managing tradeoffs and negotiations.
  • The potential of “Organic 3.0” to improve the performance of organic agriculture and move it from its current niche status to a more mainstream approach capable of addressing a multitude of sustainability challenges. This new framework puts a focus on how innovation, technology and new practices can be better integrated into an organic framework.
  • Making “the invisible” faces behind food systems visible, namely people involved in agricultural labor, food processing, transportation, retailing and food service. Our current system does not offer sustainable livelihoods to many of these actors, and they are often the same people at risk of food or nutrition insecurity.
  • Giving more attention to the potential of diversity (biodiversity, genetic diversity, dietary diversity) to support human nutrition, environmental health and resilience by building nutrition-sensitive agriculture,landscapes, value chains and markets.
  • The need to widen the availability of affordable, nutritious foods for the poor, particularly women and children. Opportunities exist to develop new and innovative food products that can be produced and distributed locally, to support value chains based on their nutritional contribution and to look at the potential of traditional food products, crops and preparation methods that may have been lost over time.
  • Value chain analysis that focuses on creating value for all actors and opportunities for farmers and communities to add value to products closer to the farm gate. This can support creating sustainable livelihoods but can also help reduce losses and spoilage.
  • Embedding “resilience thinking” into our ways of working and designing interventions. The new buzz word, resilience has great potential for designing and building food systems that deliver food and nutrition security in the face of increasing climate, market and political shocks.

Food for thought

In general, the conference echoed the need for further collaboration across disciplines, sectors and scales and better integration of participatory approaches to engage stakeholders. The conference was a first step in what is envisaged as an international forum to build and expand a food systems community, create new collaborations and implement them to improve food systems and their outcomes. The World Food System Center at ETH Zurich looks forward to leading this process together with a group of motivated partners.

This article is published in collaboration with ETH Zurich. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Michelle Grant is a Lecturer at the Department of Health Sciences and Technology at ETH Zurich.

Image: Apples are displayed in a wheel barrow. REUTERS/Franciszek Mazur/Agencja Gazeta.