Interview with IFSTAL Programme Leader Dr John Ingram

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How did IFSTAL come about?

Global food systems are under great strain due to rising populations, changes in dietary habits and urbanisation. About one billion people are hungry, two billion lack sufficient nutrients, and over two billion are overweight or obese. And current food system activities are leading to further environmental degradation. While we as academics write about these issues, I and a few colleagues realised that to bring about the changes we saw as necessary in food systems we need to ‘tool up’ the food sector with a better understanding of the issues and the capacity to bring about systemic change. We realised this meant building a new workforce of food systems professionals.

This chimed with messages from practitioners working across the food sector who welcomed graduates or applicants who understand their role within the broader food system. People within an organisation need to understand how their actions might affect other actors within the food system. They agreed we urgently need people equipped to think about food system issues across a range of domains including political, economic, business, social, cultural and environmental.

We believe that building a well-equipped, interdisciplinary food systems community will help create future professionals capable of addressing the global challenges of food security and environmental change.

Who does IFSTAL benefit and how?

First of all IFSTAL benefits the students. We are helping to produce graduates trained in applying food systems thinking to their profession work. We help them develop a range of attributes above and beyond what they acquire in their studies. These attributes include: the ability to think critically across disciplines and sectors; an understanding of food systems; creative and collaborative working; an awareness of wider impacts of food system interventions; confident communicators (drop us a line to find our about our our Education strategy). The students become more employable, and when they start their careers, can bring in new expertise to the workplace which is currently lacking.

Then the workplace benefits by having access to a cohort of graduates who have a sense of their role within the system and how they might collaborate with other actors. They benefit from having employees with skills in systems thinking and the ability to work across complex boundaries and disciplinary viewpoints.

Third, IFSTAL benefits the institutions that host us. We bring together students and colleagues from a wide range of departments across institutions and disciplines who might not otherwise interact. We provide free, added value to the traditional educational package offered to students. This results in students/graduates who are more rounded, more satisfied with their learning experience, and who go on to have rich and impactful careers.

Finally IFSTAL benefits society more broadly. The only way that we as a society can tackle food security challenges is by having professionals trained in understanding and implementing a food systems approach.

What is a food systems thinker?

Take the example of a ready meal bought from a supermarket and think about all the various steps involved: production (influenced by the farmers, the investors, the economists, public-policy makers, farming engineers, distribution, processing, manufacturing, packaging, marketing, retailing, trade, consumer behaviour, waste management etc. etc. Being a food systems thinker is about thinking broadly, it’s knowing that an intervention at one point in the system will have consequences throughout it, why and how.

What are you most looking forward to in the final year of Phase 1 of the programme and beyond?

More of the same. The first two years of the programme were hugely successful and I’m looking forward to hearing back from the alumni of the first two years. They have already gone on to incredible things.

If you could choose one object to represent IFSTAL what would it be?

IFSTAL is like a bus that runs on time: a clear indication of where we are going; plenty of room; frequent stops to allow a range of different people to get on (and off) at different stages; and really good value for money!

Dr John Ingram is the IFSTAL Lead Academic and Programme Leader. He is based at the University of Oxford where he is the Leader of the Food Systems Group at the Environmental Change Institute (ECI). Find out more about John on his profile page at ECI.

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