Let students influence the future of the agri-food sector

Thirty students and teachers from eight programs at HAS University of Applied Sciences took a trip to the food system in the year 2042 in a special master class. They developed a ‘net positive’ food system that promotes the health of people, animals and the living environment. They were aware of the way in which food is produced and traded, as well as consumption, health and food safety.

The desired future

Here are a few parts of their desired future:

A landscape with a lot of diversity. Small nature reserves and wild strips, dotted with fields. Except in large cities, many people live in communities in between. High-tech solutions such as drones and small harvesters make it possible to grow these crops together. And because of low-tech solutions that nature has devised for us, pesticides are no longer necessary. The most striking thing is that the students give the social aspect a big role: the communities themselves manage nature and the living environment through a local (food) democracy.

There will be a basic food income and good food will be available to all. By including all social costs in the product price, sustainable products suddenly become much cheaper. Of course, farmers are paid for ecosystem services. We eat more plant products from nature-inclusive, circular agriculture. Also much more often from our own environment, via short chains. And yes, there is still livestock farming, albeit less, because animals are important valuers of residual flows and help make our sector even more circular.

It is, of course, a super-normative picture. It has not been calculated for impact, there is no cost associated with it, we have not mapped winners and losers in this future. But this picture is not so bizarre: there are many good examples in the Netherlands of farmers, companies and organizations that have been working on this for a long time.

A systems approach is needed that focuses on all the other social issues

Although the current social debate is dominated by the nitrogen crisis and farmers’ protests, we have long known that the way we produce and consume food is no longer sustainable. Not only nitrogen, but also climate change, loss of biodiversity, food waste, rising health costs due to unhealthy lifestyles; they are symptoms of a food system that puts great pressure on the health of people, animals and the environment. Therefore, a systems approach is needed that does not only focus on one theme such as nitrogen, but also takes into account all the other social tasks. This systems approach is of great importance in arriving at a realistic perspective for the future.

Future perspective from all parties

And it is precisely such a future perspective that is missing in the current debate. There is now a lot of focus on the ‘problem’ and on what farmers need to do differently, but consumers and many other parties in the food system remain unaffected. While it has long been clear that food consumption must also change. There is no vision of the future that includes the context of things. How can all parties in the food system contribute to this system change? What is the future perspective on a sustainable food system?

A future story encourages conversation and gives hope

A future story is not apocalyptic, but positive and appealing to one’s standards. It encourages conversations, it gives hope. And hope gives perspective to action, power to change. And that is sorely needed in these times of great social challenges, polarization, political mistrust and conspiracy theories.

Especially for young people. Young people are almost never at the tables where the future of our sector is decided. While a large number of young people from Generation Z have long been looking for ‘meaning’ in their future work. Which they often find in contributing to solutions to social problems.

Big transitions on the way

We know that business as usual is no longer an option in the agri-food sector; we are facing major transitions. Transitions that take place in a strong political context full of dilemmas of interest, where there will also be losers. These transitions require (vocational) education to rethink what knowledge and skills are needed to train people who can lead these transitions. We argue for the integration of future thinking, future literacy as an important skill in green vocational education.

Let’s create a future vision with all parties: consumers, banks, input suppliers, retail and also education.

In all the turbulence in our sector, not only farmers, but also young people in green education yearn for a future perspective. Let’s create a positive vision for the future together. All parties in the food system: consumers, banks, input suppliers, retail trade and also education must participate in the system change. Young people from HAS show that with a lot of energy they can arrive at a supported vision of the future.

Leave a Comment