The inspiring words of our guest speakers were a reminder that the pathway to becoming a food system changemaker is not always linear.
The food system is vast and complex; every IFSTAL student who has raced against the clock to complete one of our workshop challenges or summer school projects would agree. But while this complexity can be daunting to those striving to improve food system outcomes, the scale of the food system makes it home to fascinating careers in a number of sectors.
On day five, the doors of the summer school were flung open to welcome guest speakers working across the food system to reflect on their career pathways and share insights.
Every discipline brings something to the table
First up was Keiron Stanley, a principal researcher at the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), the UK government department responsible for safeguarding the natural environment and supporting the UK’s food and farming industry. Keiron explained how Defra is interested in research in the areas of production and consumption and is endeavouring to bring the two closer together. “People from all disciplines can bring something to a career in policy,” he said, reflecting the IFSTAL practice of bringing people with different skill and experiences together. Defra has recently launched a year-long review, which will result in an ambitious, multi-disciplinary National Food Strategy, the first of its kind for 75 years.
Nothing happens in isolation; everything is connected
Hailing from Guatemala, Marta María Rios works as an analyst at the World Banana Forum (WBF), part of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Currently based in Rome, she revealed that her study path (an MSc in Tropical Forest and Biodiversity Management and Conservation) stemmed from a desire to change things for the better in her home nation. The WBF brings key stakeholders in the global banana supply-chain together to achieve consensus on best practices for sustainable production and trade. Its work rests on collaboration, mirroring Martha’s personal philosophy: “Nothing is isolated, everything is connected,” she said, explaining how FAO initiatives must be culturally pertinent, wherever they are based.
Collaborate to get things done
As an ethical trade officer for Co-op, the UK’s fifth biggest food retailer, Hannah Lerigo-Stephens explained how the supermarket chain is striving to bring its values around sustainability and social responsibility to the fore through initiatives such as its Future of Food 2030 plan. In her role, Hannah works with suppliers as well as Co-op colleagues in other departments to support the organisation’s social and environmental commitments. She shared how personal branding and possessing a commercial understanding have been relevant in her own career and, as her predecessors did, highlighted that collaboration is essential for getting things done.
Ask questions, listen and learn
Next to the floor was Duncan Williamson, who took us on a whistle-stop tour of his previous roles and experience, culminating in his current role as head of international policy at Compassion in World Farming (CIWF). CIWF was founded in 1967 by a British farmer and is now based in 12 countries. “We started as a food systems organisation that ended up working in animal welfare,” he explained. “Now we’re back to working on food systems because we recognise that in order to tackle different challenges, we need to work on food systems.” Duncan emphasised how it’s important to ask questions, listen to the answers and really learn from those answers. “And if you’re wrong,” he said, “Admit it.”
See the perspective of others
Bringing an academic perspective, Dr Henny Osbahr, an interdisciplinary geographer and associate professor at the University of Reading, explained how her research does not happen in isolation and is firmly connected to the world of policy. She stressed the importance of knowledge sharing and collaboration and echoed previous speakers’ sentiments about the value of considering the perspectives of others. “If you don’t understand the way people think, you won’t be able to introduce incentives to change,” she said. Henny also underlined how networking and taking opportunities is important in the global research community, highlighting some of her own projects as examples.
Don’t rule anything out
Wrapping up this insightful session, Rosina Borrelli, IFSTAL Workplace Engagement Lead, highlighted how the wealth of opportunities in the food sector means it’s important not to rule out any job role. Gaining experience in different sectors (such as private, government, civil society, and academia) helps to reinforce a career pathway and can lead to the so-called ‘dream jobs’. She urged the participants to embrace networking, seeing it as an opportunity for ‘sharing and learning’ rather than ‘asking and selling’.
At the end of an inspiring afternoon, we left the Henley Business School feeling better informed about the possibilities in the food sector, determined to make the most of our existing networks and more eager than ever to collaborate for change.
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