Food for Thought: Securing Sustainable Food Systems in the 21st Century

Challenge overview

This is an innovative and fascinating challenge, improving your understanding of a number of key themes associated with food. You will attend talks hosted by a range of academics and external stakeholders in the food sector, and be introduced to a number of key debates on issues of food security, sustainable food production, food and health, global food trade, eating behaviours and food related inequality.

Following this, you will work in small interdiscplinary groups, and design your own student-led project to address an aspect of the theme you are working on. Due to the flexibility of the programme, you can choose issues and questions that you are most passionate about and create something exciting and relevant, whilst making an impact.  As part of this, you may choose to carry out your own research, or collaborate with local organisations. Students in 2016 worked in collaboration with Exeter Soup to host a charity event to raise money for local causes.


Speakers for 2018 are yet to be confirmed!

In 2017, the Food for Thought Challenge welcomed Michael Winter (Exeter academic) and Andrew Butler (National Famers Union), as well as a series of pitches from local food organisations about how food creates community, how our eating behaviour is affected by the food environment, and how exactly the world is fed. These talks informed the students about the various challenges faced at each of these levels.

A wide range of other exciting experts have taken been involved in previous years. See the full list of previous experts for more details. 

2017 summary

Students began the week by listening to a series of inspiring talks from experts. Following this, students brainstormed questions and project ideas. Some students investigated solutions at a global level, others looked into local based initiatives and some looked into changing the eating behaviour of people. As part of their projects, some students collected data by running online surveys or conducting interviews with members of the community and business owners. Each student group produced an output for their project, and these included videos, posters, campaigns and app designs. One group of students ran a public awareness event in town. Each of the outputs produced are shown below.

There were also additional activities that students could participate in during the week, such as an evening screening of the film 'Food Inc' and the ‘Lunch Choice Challenge’, where students tried to find the healthiest and most sustainable lunch available on campus for £5.

At the end of the week, students presented their work to all other students on the Challenge. In the afternoon, they showcased their work at an exhibition in the Forum, which was attended by students from all Challenges, University staff and members of the general public.

The timetable‌ for the 2017 Challenge shows how the week was structured.

Student Outputs

Click on each of the images below to see the outputs that the students on the 2017 Challenge produced.

Enquiry groups

Enquiry groups are the subtopic of the challenge that students focus on for Grand Challenges Week. These are the enquiry groups that will be running in 2018. You will be able to choose from the following enquiry groups when you sign up to Grand Challenges.


Food is a global issue. The UK imports 40% of its food and that proportion is rising. Agriculture and land use change are responsible for one quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, alongside serious impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem services. This enquiry group will investigate the implications of major patterns and trends in global food production. Topics could include the implications of Brexit for UK farming, the amount of land, energy and water required to feed a city like Exeter, the implications of new technologies like genetic modification, the costs and benefits of the international food trade, the role of different certification systems like FairTrade, and how to manage vulnerable resources like fisheries.

This enquiry group will consider the food choices people make and the implications these choices have for health and the environment. What should our priorities for dietary change be for improved health and sustainability and how can we encourage or persuade people to change? Students will look at what drives food choices at the individual and societal level including how factors such as age and socioeconomic status influence food choices and how our food environment primes us to make certain choices. Students will also consider how we could try to harness the power of marketing, product promotions and other environmental nudges to try and change people’s food choices for the better.

Food has the potential to powerfully connect people--with one another, with the places in which they live, and with their natural environments. The industrialisation of food has profoundly challenged these connections, however. This enquiry group will explore ways of reconnecting people with the processes through which their food is produced, as well as ways of using food to connect people to the environment and to other people. Students will look at the use of food in the development of regional economies and viable livelihoods. They will also learn about ways of using food to build community and support vulnerable people. Areas of focus may include: linkages between sustainable food production and tourism; food and social enterprise; or food and mental health.

I was really impressed with the evidence-base presented in students' talks and ideas – they did some serious data-gathering and number-crunching to arrive at some clear and useful suggestions for how various food issues could be tackled. They combined their numeracy, analytical and creative skills to develop engaging and useful ideas for real projects and campaigns that address important issues. These ranged from very local issues (e.g. addressing food waste or unhealthy food marketing on campus) to global challenges (e.g. what fish humans should eat). The diversity of topics the students chose to address and the high-quality outputs they created was inspiring.

Dr Natalia Lawrence, one of the academic leads for the challenge

Photos from Grand Challenges 2017