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How can food systems become more sustainable?

SEI and UNEP launch a new free Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) at the United Nations Environment Assembly, focused on Southeast Asia.

Rajesh Daniel / Published on 25 May 2016
Matthew Fielding
Matthew Fielding

Head of Project Communications and Impact Division


SEI Headquarters

Rajesh Daniel

Head of Communications, SEI Asia


SEI Asia

The online course explores the complex relationships between the food we eat, the farmers, fishers and traders, our markets and eating habits, and the natural resources on which they depend.

Why a course on food systems?

Concerns from changing patterns of resource consumption, food price volatility, population growth, malnutrition, and climate change among others, have raised the profile of the food security debate within the international science and policy communities.

Even as competition over basic production means like land, water, and seeds intensifies, occasional global food crisis such as in 2011 and the resulting high prices of rice (that comprise Southeast Asia’s main staple food) severely affect poorer households in the region.

How we manage our natural resources, our land and fresh water, our oceans, and the complex ecosystems they are part of, will play a huge role in our ability to sustainably produce enough food for our growing population.

Moreover, many critical issues of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda revolve around food, food security, equitable development and livelihoods. A food systems approach goes beyond just food production to include food waste, under- and over-consumption, ‘supermarketization’ and the impact on the environment and its natural resources.

Introducing the MOOC, Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director says: “This course will introduce you to a new way of thinking when looking at the connections between natural resources and food …. Transitioning to resource-smart food systems is a condition to achieve the sustainable development goals.”

Significant opportunities are emerging to decouple food system activities from environmental degradation, specifically by both increasing efficiencies and improving the management of the natural resource base.

More energy- and water-efficient food processing (e.g. dry extraction of plant-sourced protein) is also possible. A reduction in food loss and waste, and a levelling off of meat and dairy consumption in developed countries could reduce the global cereal demand by 15%; while the reduction by 50% of meat and dairy consumption in these countries could lead to up to 40% lower nutrient losses and greenhouse gas emissions.

Course features

  • Experts from Southeast Asia and around the world.
  • Discussions on critical issues and innovative solutions to complex problems.
  • Regional case studies.
  • A global network of learners and food system actors.
  • The only MOOC on Food Systems.
  • Free of charge and open to all.

This course consists of a series of video lectures, readings, discussions, case studies and quizzes that will guide learners through the complexities of food systems, including the following:

  • Current global and Southeast Asian trends in natural resource use.
  • Environmental impacts of food systems.
  • How a food systems approach can improve management of natural resources.
  • Linkages between sustainable food, health and livelihoods.
  • Options for policy and practice towards environmentally-sustainable and resource-smart food systems.

Experts include

  • Dr. Henk Westhoek, PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (in IRP working group on food systems and natural resources).
    Dr. John Ingram, Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford (in IRP working group on food systems and natural resources).
    Dr. Tara Garnett, Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford (initiated and runs the Food Climate Research Network).
    Dr. Bernadette P. Resurrección,Stockholm Environment Institute-Asia (leads the Gender, Environment and Development Research Cluster).
    Matthew Fielding, Stockholm Environment Institute-Asia (works with the Swedish International Agriculture Network Initiative (SIANI programme).

What will learners gain?

After completing the course, learners will have gained a solid understanding of what food systems are, how they work, and the sustainability challenges of food production and consumption. They will be able to understand the environmental impacts of current food systems and the potential impact of future interventions in food systems. Learners will also engage with solutions-oriented thinking about sustainability challenges and be able to think innovatively to develop new approaches.

Matthew Fielding of SEI says: “Through this course, we want to explore opportunities to see how food systems can be made more sustainable. We hope to reach out through this course to young people, students, academics, and everyone interested in topics of food production, consumption and good health.

“This MOOC can help people across Southeast Asia to engage with their communities and help build a food future that is both prosperous and sustainable.”

The MOOC is provided by Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) Asia, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and International Resource Panel (IRP). A Certificate of Participation is available to learners after they have completed the course. Learners will also have free, 24-hour access to all course materials.

Read more and register

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