Organisation - March 13, 2014

Hungry for more

Albert Sikkema

Several hundred Wageningen students attended the recent Food Otherwise conference on alternatives to conventional food production. Some see this as a signal that students are eager for a new kind of degree programme on food issues. Does Wageningen’s degree programme still fit the bill?

I want to know how we can feed the world in 2050,’ says Plant Sciences student Wytze Marinus. ‘I couldn’t care less how, as long as it is sustainable so that we shall still be able to feed the world 50 years after that.’ That is why Wytze went to the Food Otherwise conference on 21 and 22 February in Wageningen. Afterwards he says the conference has broadened his perspective. ‘In Plant Production Systems, where I am doing my thesis, the perception of food production is still rather limited. I came across some other perspectives at this conference, such as agroecology. I consider that rather an airy-fairy approach, but it is good for science to come up with a range of points of view.’

The conference clearly met a need. About 250 Wageningen students attended the workshops, along with a few dozen students from other universities. Not too surprising, says sociology professor Han Wiskerke, a speaker at the conference. Food production and food policy are hot and he sees a growing number of social movements focussing on the food issue. ‘Particularly in the cities, a growing group of people are looking for alternative food systems.’ Wiskerke sees universities in the United Kingdom and The United States which are expanding their programmes with Master’s programmes such as Food, Space and Society, Agroecology and Food Security, and Food Policy. Such programmes forge links between different academic disciplines, creating a broader and coherent perspective on food, says Wiskerke. This, he thinks, could mean a gap in the market for Wageningen University. Because in the Netherlands too there is a lack of food-related degree programmes with a clear governance and social context.

Wageningen does already make a distinction between food and nutrition. There are degree programmes in the field of food production (Plant Sciences and Animal Sciences), and on food processing (Food Technology, Biotechnology), food quality (Food Quality Management, Food Safety) and trade (Management and Economics). When it comes to nutrition, there are programmes in the fields of Nutrition and Health, Marketing and Consumer Behaviour, and Sensory Sciences. So there are plenty of food-related courses, with various difference approaches to food, but knowledge about food is separated into specializations. There is no degree programme which brings together technological and social aspects of food.

Holistic view
One of those struggling with this is Master’s student Lara Sibbing. She knows a bit about it, because alongside her degree in Organic Agriculture, Sibbing put together her own specialization on Food Policy. To do that she combed the whole university for courses that were in some way related to sustainable food production. ‘After my Bachelor’s in Animal Sciences, I wanted a holistic view of food and I started taking courses on human nutrition, plant-based production, law and environmental policy, to name but a few. The world food question is complex, but it means something different to every chair group. At Human Nutrition food is all about health, while the food technologist asks, what’s in it? The plant breeder looks at the yield per hectare, the sociologist at the farmers. They are all islands. I want to create links.’ There are more courses on food in Wageningen than many people realize, says Sibbing, including courses on agricultural policy and on food law. ‘The only thing missing is any courses on food policy and the politics of food. Because the food issue is highly political too, when we talk about hunger, food waste, access to food and the availability of food.

Wageningen is very focused on agriculture and food production, and often behaves as though the political side to food did not exist

Wageningen is very focused on agriculture and food production, and often behaves as though the political side to food did not exist.’ Sibbing is confronted by that political side every week, because she is also a part-time advisor on food strategy for Ede municipality. ‘An upshot of my internship,’ she explains. ‘Ede needed a municipal position on food.’ Her position paper has not yet been adopted. ‘It should be a combination of the wishes of groups of citizens and companies, plus the ambitions of Food Valley. And that is quite difficult.’ Her job in Ede shows there is work out there for graduates of Food Policy. More and more Dutch municipalities need a food policy. Since last summer, for instance, Rotterdam has had a Food Council, and Amsterdam recently published its vision of food.

Well-dressed young people
Is this a sign of a lack of courses in Wageningen, or even an entire degree programme, in the field of food policy and politics? Tiny van Boekel, director of the university’s Education Institute (OWI), thinks that is going too far at the moment. ‘Food policy is addressed in several programmes at present and students have the chance to focus more on food policy in their electives. And attention is paid to alternative approaches outside the curriculum as well, by Studium Generale and the KLV. But I am happy to engage in debate with students about it.’ Sibbing thinks there is scope for a degree programme of this kind. She thinks that is clear in the Organic Agriculture programme, where, besides the vast numbers of ‘Droevendalers and hippies’, another kind of student is looking for alternatives these days as well: well-dressed young people from the urban west of the Netherlands who think the current system is out of date and the cracks are showing. This group is not so interested in focusing on farming and marketing, but does want to change the food system.

Photo: Joyce Fabriek