From August 29 to September 1, 2017, experts and researchers from diverse backgrounds gathered together for the European Association of Agricultural Economists (EAAE) Congress in an Italian city famous for agri-food products – Parma, in order to provide experiences and insights into discussions around feasible solutions to shifting Towards Sustainable Agri-Food Systems: Balancing between Markets and Society1. Aligned with the aim of the congress, the first edition of the EAAE student case study competition was launched to encourage participation and contribution of young researchers via interpersonal and interdisciplinary interactions. By bringing food-sustainability-related challenges to the table, teams composed by individual participants or groups worked intensively to seek for creative and concrete solutions to fix a fundamental problem within the food system: the food–people–planet relationship. Since building up a healthy and sustainable food system and bringing in the participation of young generation are main concerns for Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition (BCFN), Pin-Jane Chen, Oluwafemi Ajayi, and other BCFN alumni also joined the competition as individual participants.
The case study competition started with an article entitled “The thrive of Community Supported Agriculture Networks: Changing Global Systems or Enjoying Islands of Happiness?” (Allievi, F., Antonelli. M., Dentoni, D., and de Leeuw, R., 2017)2. The paper revolved around problems faced by an international network for Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) called Urgenci. Rooted in sustainability-related activities in local communities, Urgenci seeks to create synergy and coherence across local practice, regional/national policies, and global cooperation while preserving diversity. By supporting a global systems transformation restarting from food, land and deeper human connections, Urgenci also aimed at building up values of fairness, solidarity and reciprocity. However, some practical problems are raised: how to combine the increasing pressure on land and efficient food production with the preservation of biodiversity and the enactment of human rights?; how can the organization achieve a wide outreach and global impact beyond their own “islands of happiness” without compromising its foundational values?; and how can the organization effectively influence the international agricultural, food and nutrition policy debates while maintaining its bottom-up and inclusive approach for decision making? The competing teams were saddled with the task of analysing Urgenci’s current organization and activities, understanding the problems grounded in the real world, identifying the direction of future plans, and ultimately proffering concrete and practical solutions with a holistic approach within a given budget. Through a presentation, each team addressed the challenges and provided the solution with a well-crafted research plan that were to be evaluated by the jury of experts.
For example, BCFN alumni Pin-Jane Chen and Oluwafemi Ajayi together with Andrea Bianchi and Valeria Imeneo, proposed a two-levels mobile application system (Apps) that Urgenci can use to stimulate practical changes from information exchange and integration, considering problems that different stakeholders are facing, from local to global. At the local level, Urgenci can help each CSA build up their App with the implement of Geographic Information System, providing a platform for producers/farmers to directly sell healthy and sustainable products to the consumers with better income. Also, exchanges of practical information and by-products between producers/farmers can reduce waste of resources. All the history of interactions will be recorded and sent to the database supervised by Urgenci. Field data and grassroots knowledge can be used for research purposes and the results of research in turn will provide producers/farmers and consumers new inputs of knowledge and techniques. Through this virtuous feedback loop, Urgenci and researchers can launch proper workshops with local CSAs for introducing agronomic practices, providing professional support, and applying education training. At the national and international level, another platform can be built with the purpose of information integration among individual CSAs. In this platform, individual CSAs database along with the record of the workshops will provide grassroots knowledge and suggestions for the policy. Moreover, research groups will also provide professional inputs to the platform. Urgenci will play the role in integrating and summarizing information from local level as well as supporting the function of this higher-level platform. Thus, Urgenci can effectively provide bottom-up data for national/international policy makers and then bring back practical supports to the local level according to political decisions.
The case study provided a great opportunity for youth with multidisciplinary backgrounds to brainstorm ideas, exchange experiences, and integrate perspectives. The winning team from Emory University3 not only received the prestigious EAAE 2017 Student Case-Study Competition Prize but was also invited to attend 8th International Forum on Food and Nutrition, hosted by BCFN in Milan, December 4th-5th, 2017, fully funded by BCFN. By working on possible solutions for Urgenci as an example, changes and transitions of our current agri-food system were triggered towards a more sustainable one. Although a lot of work is still needed to be done for reaching a sustainable food system, the diverse and flexible solutions presented in the case study competition have already shown the engagement and possible contribution of young generation to a better tomorrow. We hope that through various kinds of activities which facilitate communication and collaboration, future leaders, researchers, policy makers, and related stakeholders can be united together to face the challenges of our food system, shifting the current food system towards the one that is more ecologically sound, environmentally friendly, and beneficial for human health and wellbeing.
1 See the official website of XV EAAE Congress: http://www.eaae2017.it/
2 Allievi, F., Antonelli. M., Dentoni, D., and de Leeuw, R. (2017). The thrive of Community Supported Agriculture Networks: Changing Global Systems or Enjoying Islands of Happiness. A Case Study prepared for the 15th European Association of Agricultural Economists (EAAE) Congress, 29th August – 1st September, 2017.
3 The winning team was from Emory University, made by Mackenzie Aime, Isaac Goldman, Emily Kaitlin, and Shivam Jariwala.