3 questions for future food research

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foodfuturesOn April 15th 2013, 30 young post-doctoral scientists joined 10 senior scientists in the magnificent surroundings of Villa Vigoni on the banks of Lake Como. Funded by the DFG, our mission had been set by Future Earth: to come up with the most pressing, interdisciplinary research questions in the area of food that will need to be addressed in the next 20 years. No small challenge, but with scientists representing the 6 continents (with a strong African presence) and from a diverse set of backgrounds, we were up to the task.

The following 5 days were jam-packed with activities that stretched our combined mental capacities to the limit. Prof Mary Scholes was the convenor of the conference and, together with a truly stellar group of senior researchers, she set us a variety of tasks to flex our creative mettle: from academic ‘speed dating,’ a World Café exercise and even ‘dialogue walks’ through the exquisite scenery offered by the Lugano Prealps.

The programme was structured around the three themes of Future Earth:

The Dynamic Planet, Global Development and Transformation towards (and beyond) Sustainability. There were also two cross-cutting themes of co-design of research with stakeholders and innovative communication models for high-impact research.

These will all be published in the conference report, but as is often the case, it was more the process than the outcome that had the biggest effect. For instance, in my mind, some of the most valuable learning came from having to reconcile the interests of social and natural scientists, in particular when it came to the framing and nuance of the questions. Having the space to voice our opinions/ideas/training and to resolve conflicts- whether they were over definitions, priorities or interpretations- was an invaluable lesson for all of us.

I observed three common themes that seemed to run through the week’s discussions:

  1. The need to reconnect the food production with food consumption - not just in the real world, but in how we approach doing research on food too.
  2. A gap in adequate methodologies that can address the need for inter (and trans) disciplinary research that can actually have impact for a sustainable transformation. Attached to this was a call for the development of new metrics that can help us to understand the complexity of food more holistically.
  3. The importance of health and nutrition, which can sometimes be overlooked by those not operating in the medical sciences, but which are critical for food sustainability.

However the conference’s agenda did not stop at the co-formation of important questions; we were also expected to form long-lasting collaborative networks in order that these questions could be incorporated into out research agendas. It was arguably these informal exchanges over bountiful, (if arguably not always sustainable), meals and drinks that produced what will be the lasting legacy of this conference. This legacy is the intangible, yet no less important, formation of a network of passionate scientists that are dedicated to the work in the field.

Given the enthusiasm with which everyone set to their tasks, I have no doubt that this is going to be a fascinating arena to watch out for some of the more exciting research to come out of the field of food and agriculture.

(Photo credit: ICSU)

Laura Pereira completed her DPhil in Geography and Environmental Science at Oxford in 2012 and she holds an MSc from the same institution as well as a BSc (Hons) from the University of the Witwatersrand. Having spent a year as a Giorgio Ruffolo post-doctoral fellow in the Sustainability Science Program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, she is currently based at the University of Cape Town as part of the Bioeconomy research group in the Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences. Laura has been a member of the Future Agricultures Consortium since 2011 when she became an early career post-doctoral fellow and she is also an International Social Sciences Council (ISSC) Post-doctoral Fellow.

Her research focuses on innovation and adaptation in the food system under environmental change, with a specific emphasis on the role of linking production and consumption patterns in emerging economies like Brazil and South Africa. Currently, she is focussing on the potential for orphan crops to play a significant role in a transformation to a more sustainable and equitable food system.


  • Guest
    Laura Pereira Thursday, 09 May 2013

    That's very reassuring to hear, Graeme- that we're all getting on the same page in terms of research agendas in this space. Thanks for your comment!

  • Guest
    Graeme Martin Friday, 03 May 2013

    I wish I had been there!!
    Despite the fact that we are on the other side of the world, in a completely different geographical zone, we have the same primary focus and have identified that same basic issues.

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Guest Wednesday, 23 August 2017