The current biodiversity, climate, water, land and human global crisis demands that we look closely at academic curricula. We need to see if young people are being properly trained and prepared for today’s complex, interlinked challenges – also called ‘wicked problems’ in the policy and planning sector.
Current sectoral and silo thinking have helped us to gain deep knowledge on parts of Earth’s systems. And simpler metrics – like hectares under protection, yields or caloric production, and numbers under the poverty threshold of earning USD1.9 per day – have helped us to make fast progress for very specific problems.
But silo thinking and performance metrics fall short of the reality of the current Anthropocene. To effectively tackle today’s problems, we need to put holistic approaches and systems thinking back at the center of our education, governance, food systems and economies.
Teaching the nutrition-sensitive landscapes approach
That’s why the Farming Systems Ecology Group (FSE) and the Division of Human Nutrition and Health at Wageningen University and Research (WUR), the Netherlands, and the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT came together for the second time this year, during one week. Specifically, we worked together to teach on the ‘nutrition-sensitive landscapes’ approach, as part of the seven-week course "Methodologies for Reading Sustainable Foodscapes", developed by FSE and led by Vivian Valencia and Rogier Schulte.
The 38 students from 15 different countries in Europe and Asia, worked on real case studies from the Global Network of Lighthouse Farms – a global outdoor classroom and laboratory on sustainable foodscapes. In these foodscapes, the students put theory into practice. But what did they learn?
Before we started the course, we asked students to examine an image of a landscape and to list everything that the landscape provides. Then we asked about the metrics the students could use to measure the landscape’s performance.
In Figure 1, we can see that food and yield were initially the most common response. But after Elise Talsma, Jeroen Groot and Natalia Estrada Carmona from the teaching team shared their work, the students’ understanding – and appreciation – of what a foodscape provides changed. Students learned about the multiple metrics that can be used to measure healthy diets; about examples implementing a nutrition-sensitive approach at the farm-household and landscape levels; and about the theories and models used (Figure 1; after).
The evidence, models and materials put together for this one-week training course are the result of a long-term collaboration between WUR and CGIAR. The nutrition-sensitive landscape approach which is a result of this collaboration "espouses the use of a systems-oriented, place-based and multi-disciplinary approach to analyze the integrated pathways leading to improvements in well-being, income and nutrition livelihood outcomes and in ecosystem services, especially for marginalized and vulnerable populations" across contrasting sites in Zambia, Vietnam and Kenya. One of the main results of the approach is identifying trade-offs and synergies among sustainable agriculture development, nutrition and conservation for better guidance and more targeted interventions.
Equipping a new generation of systems thinkers
Through our teaching, we planted a seed of thought in the students: the urgent need to use a systems approach for handling competing objectives. We also equipped the students with different tools for capturing better performance. As the younger and future generations will increasingly have to address sustainability challenges, there is an urgent need to develop and support programs like ours – those that teach students through hands-on experiences how to address and handle complex problems.
Through such programs, we can educate a new generation of systems thinkers and holistic approach supporters. This is vital if the global community is to restore natural resources and biodiversity, produce healthy and nutritious foods and create vibrant ecosystems and communities.
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