Empowering our food system in the European Year of Skills

Posted: 20 February 2024 | | No comments yet

Dr Maarten van der Kamp explains why harnessing education and skills in the agrifood sector could transform the future food system.


By Dr Maarten van der Kamp, Director of Education, EIT Food

We need urgent and extensive efforts to transition to a food system which is healthy, sustainable and resilient for all. Education is a crucial piece of this puzzle, but in the past it has often felt like an afterthought, or been missing altogether.

The European Year of Skills – which began in May 2023 and will run until May 2024 – offers a golden opportunity for the agrifood community to embrace the importance of education and skills in food system.

The European Commission has positioned the Year of Skills as a vehicle to ‘empower people and companies to contribute to the green and digital transitions’, and support ‘innovation and competitiveness’. These advancements are urgently needed within the food industry.

Research has shown that the European food sector provides 44 million jobs and a €1.4 billion turnover; it is, in fact, the largest job provider of any manufacturing sector. However, 40 percent of the core skills held by these employees are expected to change over the next five years and by 2030, two-thirds of all employees will need reskilling.

Fortunately, Europe is blazing a trail of new initiatives, funding and collaboration to support the vision of the Year of Skills. The Agri-Food Pact for Skills Initiative is a prime example of a collaborative strategy aiming to upskill the current workforce, open up career opportunities and offer lifelong learning to employers and workers. The ‘skills partnership for agrifood’ is bringing together stakeholders from across Europe in a joint effort to design and implement curriculum that will enhance the retention and attractiveness of careers within the food system.

By taking inspiration from these efforts as a global community, we can ensure that upskilling, re-skilling and lifelong learning are embedded throughout all approaches to transforming our food system.

Future-proofing our workforce

There are five ‘underpinning’ skills that are essential to preparing our workforce for the future food system: entrepreneurship, critical thinking, leadership, problem solving and communication. By developing proficiency in these five areas, innovators, entrepreneurs, and other actors across the food system will be better equipped to advance their careers in the agrifood sector, as well as contribute effectively to transform the food system.

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Once these foundational skills are in place, it is essential that the workforce is equipped to keep up with advancements in technology. From artificial intelligence to robotics, new innovations are constantly changing the way we produce, manufacture and consume food – and with technology advancing at a faster rate than ever before, it is important that no one is left behind.

The European Institute of Innovation & Technology (EIT)’s Deep Tech Talent Initiative offers one example of an educational programme aiming to upskill professionals in new and emerging technologies. With a focus on ‘deep tech’ – a wave of innovation which often combines advances in the physical, biological and digital spheres – the programme seeks to skill one million people working within relevant fields over three years.

Crucially, a broad network of training providers, companies, higher education institutions, public authorities and financing partners are mobilising to form a powerful alliance which works together towards this goal. Actors across the food sector are strongly encouraged to get involved, to foster collaboration and synergies with other partners and industries.

Upskilling together

The food value chain is a complex and increasingly fragile system, and transforming it will require strong, effective collaboration between innovators, producers, manufacturers, and consumers. We need a diverse range of leaders with diverse competences working together to unlock the most effective approaches to transforming our food system.

WE Lead Food is one example of an initiative based on the three Cs of collective leadership – cooperate, collaborate and co-create. The programme is facilitating environments where women leaders within the food system can leverage their advanced skills, share resources and learn about the latest tools for leading change towards our future food system. Opportunities like this provide fertile ground for diverse groups of thinkers and doers to unlock the solutions for our future food system.

Preparing the next generation of food sector professionals is essential, with offerings like the Master in Food Systems programme helping to equip our future workforce with the skills to think and work in a holistic, collaborative way. The EU Skills for Future programme, which has previously targeted school students in underrepresented communities in South Italy, revealed a promising glimpse of the possibilities when we invest in entrepreneurial skills at a young age.

Participants developed and pitched solutions including ‘Eco-Tom Polish’, a eco-friendly cleaning solution produced using tomato waste, and ‘Healthy Tiger’, an app-based game for families which teaches them the risks of poor nutrition and the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. The young entrepreneurs have gone on to win national competitions and present their ideas on a global stage.

Targeting another key group within the food sector is GROW: an initiative led by farmers, for farmers, which aims to establish a platform for them to gain knowledge, tools and confidence to navigate the evolving agrifood landscape. By engaging corporate and educational partners across Europe, the programme also connects farmers into activities and events to promote regenerative and zero-carbon practices, enhance their entrepreneurial skills, and mitigate risks associated with adopting sustainable digital technologies.

Alongside this, it is vital that we recognise and invest in teaching the teachers. Upskilling of education providers as well as learners is vital as these knowledge institutions will go on to support their learners and can develop clear pathways for them to create impact within the food system. The EIT HEI Initiative helps to unlock the potential of education institutions to become local and regional engines of innovation ecosystems and to enhance sustainable growth and jobs across Europe.

Beyond the Year of Skills

The European Year of Skills will come to an end in May 2024, but it is essential that we all continue to take urgent action towards upskilling current and future professionals across the entire food value chain.

Actors within organisations have the opportunity to demonstrate leadership by closing the skills and talent gap and reforming how their organisations innovate. EIT Food’s Learning Services is a pan-European skills platform which offers support with this, including analysing employee skill levels, developing tailored learning strategies for organisations, and a broad range of training courses. What’s more, the EIT Label accreditation is an assurance that courses meet the highest standards and offer the opportunity to create true impact within the agrifood system.

Research and educational institutions must mobilise the innovation potential of their faculty and staff to ensure that the boldest ideas can become practical solutions to transform food systems. Pushing the boundaries of innovation and creativity is essential to ensure we are preparing our workforce for the jobs, systems and technologies of the future.

Taking proactive steps towards a more educated workforce is key to achieving a food system which better serves us all. It is critical that we don’t lose momentum – and we instead seek opportunities to build on this exciting foundation for years to come.

Explore EIT Food’s skills platform at


About the author

Dr Maarten Van der KampDr Maarten van der Kamp is EIT Food’s Director of Education. He is passionate about developing entrepreneurs that are equipped to respond to current and emerging environmental and social challenges to create a more sustainable society. As part of his role at EIT Food, Maarten is responsible for the creation and implementation of a robust portfolio of innovative educational programmes offered at postgraduate, professional development and VET levels to drive food system transformation through entrepreneurship, and developing collaborations across Europe to address the European Skills Agenda in Agrifood.