Case Studies, Systems Thinking

A partnership approach to food systems change in Zürich

As its name suggests, the World Food Systems Center (WFSC) has a global, big picture view of food systems transformation. The WFSC is based out of ETH Zürich, a public research institution in Switzerland’s largest city.

The centre supports research, education, and outreach that takes a food systems approach. In doing so, its strategy is to examine the interconnected environmental, social, political, and economic conditions within the food system, addressing the challenges that exist from production to retail to waste.

“We believe we will be most successful when experts from different fields bring their diverse experiences together to work collaboratively to design appropriate interventions,” describes the 2019 Annual Report of the centre’s approach. To that end, the members at the heart of WFSC are a diverse group: 46 professors from seven ETH departments and other Swiss research institutions.

WFSC partners with many external groups and sectors to fund the cross-disciplinary research undertaken by its members. This includes strategic partnerships with the private sector and industry around some of the most pressing challenges facing the food system.

One of WFSC’s flagship projects, ETH Studio AgroFood, works closely with ETH Zürich students. The Studio turns a critical eye towards rising digitalization within the Swiss food system and the disruptive effect it’s having on farmers, food companies, retailers, and eaters. Seeing its students as experts in the digital space, the project helps them understand the issues and opportunities of digitalization so they can create innovative solutions of their own.

Fostering future food systems leaders

Educating and inspiring the next generation of decision-makers goes beyond WSFC’s research programs. Since 2012, the centre has convened an annual two-week-long summer school that brings together students from ETH Zürich and higher education institutions around the world.

The summer school is an immersive experiential learning opportunity. Students are just as likely to find themselves digging in the soil alongside a local farmer as they are listening to a lecture. Past summer schools have taken students to India, South Africa, Côte d’Ivoire, and closer to home at Gut Rheinau, one of Switzerland’s largest organic farms.

“The best part of this summer school is that we can exchange ideas and perspectives with people who are in different cultures and from different research backgrounds to make a better understanding of a sustainable world food system,” said Jiaqi, a student from China who attended the 2013 summer school.

Michelle Grant, now the Education Director with WFSC, says the summer school allows students to better understand complex food systems challenges and explore solutions in multicultural and transdisciplinary settings. She finds it very motivating to hear the students’ perspectives and ways of working and enjoys setting them on course to create their own positive change.

Thanks to the summer school and its other educational activities, the WFSC has an interdisciplinary network of nearly 200 alumni from around the world. It continues to engage with those alumni through social media, newsletters, and networking events, recognizing that these individuals are the food systems leaders of tomorrow.

Outreach and engagement

Finally, WFSC’s outreach efforts fuse research and education in creative ways. The goal is to reach not only relevant stakeholders through more conventional events like an annual research symposium, but also to make food systems research more accessible to the general public.

One example of the latter is the centre’s Food Systems Stories blog, initiated in 2016 and featuring pieces written by past WFSC program participants. Adopting a storytelling approach, recent blog posts have transported readers to the Philippines to learn how millet farmers envision the future post-COVID-19 and have documented the role that culture plays in agriculture in Northeast India.

Another past project called Edible Research also offered secondary school students a fun field trip to ETH’s greenhouse. Once inside, they participated in a dynamic, three-day workshop where they learned more about agroecology, organic farming, and the delicious foods they produce.

With partnerships with industry, researchers, policymakers, and educators alike, the WFSC is well-placed to make progress on its mission of achieving a healthy world through sustainable food systems.