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Feeding the future: the crucial role of advancing food industry skills

Food education and skills development are essential for transforming the food system. How do we ensure all stakeholders have access to lifelong learning opportunities to help drive this change?

28 Nov 2023
7 min reading time

With 2023 designated as the European Year of Skills, the spotlight has fallen on the pivotal role of education and skills development for the progress of societies across Europe. The agrifood sector stands out as a key actor by actively contributing to transformative innovation that impacts people and our planet every day. With €1.4 billion turnover, it is the largest manufacturing sector in EU providing over 44 million jobs (1).

But despite Europe showing strong levels of skills proficiency, with European countries occupying 19 of the world’s 25 highest ranking countries (2), skills development within the food system still requires attention to meet the scale of societal challenges: the sector is characterised by fragmentation, small businesses, and traditionally low levels of investment in R&D (less than 0.5% of output by private sector entities) (1).

More than three quarters of companies in the EU say they have difficulties finding workers with the necessary skills, while only 37% of adults undertake training on a regular basis (3). Stakeholders at all levels must continue advancing and refining their personal and professional skills on an ongoing basis in the food system to tackle the ever-changing and growing challenges that the sector is faced with.

Why is food education important?

Education is the bedrock of progress, particularly in an industry as essential as the food system. A well-informed and highly skilled workforce is better equipped to address the challenges posed by climate change, resource scarcity, and the ever-evolving demands of a growing population and diet-related public health issues.

For example, the EU Farm to Fork Strategy sets ambitious targets to transform the food system, such as the cut in the use of chemical pesticides by 50% by 2030, the reduction of nutrient loss by at least 50% and the reduction of the use of fertilisers by at least 20% by 2030. While it is essential to achieve these targets, it is not always clear how it can be done within the given timeframe, without compromising the economic viability and competitiveness of the agrifood sector. R&I are essential to respond to this challenge. But to succeed, new technologies and innovative solutions need to be adopted by industry and deployed in the market, to disrupt and displace obsolete models and technologies, and introduce new and more sustainable ones.

Individuals who develop their underpinning skills are more likely to innovate and think holistically, therefore contributing to a more sustainable, resilient, and healthier food system in the long term. Moreover, to transform the food system, the agrifood sector requires new types of jobs that do not yet exist, and which need skill sets that recognise the systemic nature of food production and consumption.

With the rate of change and digital transformation in today’s world, this is even more critical. Approximately 40% of all workers globally will require re-skilling in six months or less in order to keep up with new tools and processes, and 94% of business leaders expect their employees to pick up new skills on the job, which is up from 65% in 2018 (4).

Underpinning skills: the foundation of food systems transformation

Underpinning skills are the fundamental competencies that form the backbone of success in any field. In the context of the food system, these skills encompass a broad spectrum, including critical thinking, problem-solving, adaptability, and a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of the food system.

These skills, which span areas such as agriculture, entrepreneurism, policy, healthcare and nutrition, and climate adaptation, are the building blocks upon which specific technical expertise can be developed and rolled out across all regions within Europe. For instance, while many agree that farming practices should become more regenerative, the burden for making this shift cannot fall squarely on the shoulders of farmers. Europe's agricultural communities should be supported in developing their knowledge and skills – and accessible education for farmers of all ages and backgrounds will be critical.

Food education courses

Integrating courses and education programmes such as EIT Food’s online course Engaging with Controversies in the Food System into wider education and public engagement initiatives means stakeholders can approach critical thinking in a way that is relevant and valuable for their field. Courses such as Circular Business Models for Sustainable Urban Food Systems offer more direct problem-solving opportunities, posing questions and tasks for users to tackle. These programmes to date have supported over 130,000 learners and aim to create a global community of lifelong learners looking at food systems through a more sustainable lens, with the end goal of them implementing those ideas into their daily lives.

Collaboration and networking opportunities

Initiatives that put shared learning at the core are essential for progress to develop new notions of collective leadership that can bridge the siloes in the food system. EIT Food is actively seeking to drive system change through an action-oriented approach in which diversity is key. For example, based on Shima Barakat’s three Cs of collective leadership - cooperate, collaborate and cocreate - WE Lead Food delivers a fertile environment where women can leverage their advanced skills, share resources and learn about the latest tools for leading change towards our future food system.

The food system issues are diverse, and we need diverse leaders with diverse competences to cocreate the solutions, and the social environments where such diversity can thrive for the benefit of everyone. Rather than trying to ‘fix’ any particular actor into traditional roles, we focus on challenging the state of the system, and equip learners with a range of entrepreneurial and leadership tools as well as diverse perspectives and insights.

“I was in a place where I wanted to decide what to do with my life. It was the best decision I have made. I am ready to conquer my goals, to conquer the world! By supporting one another, we can go further together. There has been a huge change in my mentality. I now have a network of amazing ladies that want to cooperate!”

- Dr. Sofia Lalou, Head of Environmental Science, Perrotis College, Greece (WE Leader, 2021)

Academic programmes

Advancing skills can also form part of more academic programmes, such as the Master in Food Systems degree. The programme aims to develop top talent for the food sector, by training the leaders of the future. Organised by leading academic institutions and industrial organisations, the programme encourages students to drive the transformation of the food system and increase the competitiveness of the companies they choose to work for.

By learning from a wide variety of academics, students have the opportunity to become creative leaders and team builders, bringing distinctive viewpoints along with novel solutions for tomorrow’s consumers and citizens. Points of focus for the course include problem solving, critical thinking, leadership, technology management, food systems, entrepreneurship, and food systems. The course involves six leading universities, students from 35 countries, and has seen the creation of three industry startups. Startups include Kasoda, an innovative startup bringing a novel food to the market in the form of a drink made from cascara, a byproduct of the coffee industry.

The Master in Food System also imbues students with an entrepreneurial mindset and leadership qualities. For example, students from the course have set up an EIT Food “chapter” of the Good Food Institute’s Alt Protein Project, a global student movement dedicated to turning universities into engines for alternative protein education, research, and innovation. Over 50 students are now involved in the project and have since established the APPatEIT podcast and other knowledge sharing networks to help bridge the gap between academic and industry.

Learning and skills accreditation

Quality assurance and aligning education with industry needs are also keys to success. Initiatives such as Learning Services for Employers provide an internationally recognised mark of excellence in professional education for the food system. Through consulting over 1,000 businesses and employers across Europe, EIT Food found that most current education and training provisions do not meet the needs of the industry and that urgent change is needed to professionalise education across the food system (5).

EIT Food Learning Services, created with academic and corporate partners, offers a single, pan-European assessment process for all professional education and training programmes within the agrifood system and benchmarks the way practitioners across Europe deliver non-academic training courses.

“The course was shaped in a way that made me more confident, heard and, of course, able to see my own varied path as I’m building my own future. We’re always looking to develop our own skillset. What is it we need to build a more successful career path? I found this through the EIT Food Learning Services course.”

- Anilda Guri, Director Research & Development, Gay Lea Food Co-operative Ltd – WE Lead Food Alumna

The future of food education

The nature of the food system means skills availability is equally fragmented and siloed, with little scope for systems approaches to solving the key challenges to create sustainable, healthy and nutritious diets. We must redefine the way we approach innovation, ensuring education and skills development are embedded throughout every innovation process and business plan for all stakeholders across Europe, including consumers and citizens. Employers should be supported in introducing structured education programmes for their workforces, adding lifelong learning to all staff retention objectives. And we must standardise the expectations associated with education, putting skills development at the top of all job descriptions. Without implementing these actions, we will not achieve our goals of a healthier, more sustainable and resilient food system.

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