Food Transformation Systems — The Montpellier Process

University of Leeds
University of Leeds
5 min readJun 10, 2024

Ankitha Manohar is a 1st year PhD researcher in the School of Earth and Environment at Leeds, funded by the UKRI NERC Panorama DTP. Her research uses systems approaches for understanding climate-smart mariculture and coastal aquaculture, with a focus on livelihood resilience and food security, under the current climate crisis.

Ankitha shares her experience of taking part in programs that explored bridging the gap between science, society, and policy-making.

Doctoral students in front of the world’s oldest operation faculty of medicine in Montpellier
Doctoral students in front of the world’s oldest operation faculty of medicine in Montpellier ©AnkithaManohar

My journey in Montpellier, France, as part of the University of Montpellier-University of Pretoria’s Feed-Protect-Care Global Collaborative PhD Platform, was an incredibly enriching experience that expanded my understanding of sustainable food systems and the complex challenges they face.

During the program, which brought together 33 early-stage PhD students, I had the opportunity to engage in theoretical lectures, immersive field trips, and thought-provoking discussions with experts and peers from diverse backgrounds.

With my background rooted in Marine Science and Aquaculture, I was both apprehensive and excited about the task in hand. My PhD is transdisciplinary in nature, using systems thinking to broaden my understanding of the marine aquaculture realm, so this program was extremely relevant for my development as a researcher.

The first week of the program combined theoretical lectures on sustainable food transformation systems and local policies with practical field trips to local farmers, and food shops in Montpellier.

These sessions and trips were eye-opening, allowing us to witness firsthand the intricacies of local food production, distribution, and policymaking.

We had the chance to interact with farmers who shared their experiences and challenges, giving us valuable insights into the realities of agriculture in the region.

It was fascinating to see what a small city like Montpellier is doing locally for its agroecological transition and where the challenges and opportunities lie.

The cohort focused on “Obstacles to food systems transformation: the enhancement of diversity and intercultural perceptions.” We delved into the paradox of modern food systems — while we have never eaten so well, obesity has become a global pandemic.

Moreover, the production stage of agriculture puts significant pressure on the environment, contributing to biodiversity loss, climate change, and other ecological challenges; a challenge that I have been working on all my professional life!

Ankitha and another person with Gerda Verburg, former minister of agriculture, nature and food quality of the Netherlands
Ankitha with Gerda Verburg, former minister of agriculture, nature and food quality of the Netherlands ©AnkithaManohar

Louis Malassis, a Montpellier professor’s mid-1990s concept of transforming food systems to incorporate human health, ecosystem health, and social justice resonated deeply with our discussions.

We explored the potential of food system transformation to generate healthy food for all, contribute to non-food products, take care of renewable resources, mitigate climate change, and generate employment and income. However, achieving these goals requires new analytical frameworks, knowledge and indicators, and political frameworks for addressing trade-offs.

As an early career researcher, it is often hard to address or achieve these targets due to our position in the academic space, funding and lack of opportunities. However, being part of the Montpellier Process gave us a platform to voice our fresh and unique opinions and expertise.

Ankitha standing with four others who formed a working group at the event
Ankitha’s working group that discussed ‘Innovation’ in food system transformation in Montpellier ©AnkithaManohar

During the UM-UP Foods Global Collaborative doctoral platform, I was part of a working group tackling the challenge of science/lab-based innovation versus on-farm innovation.

We debated whether innovation alone is sufficient for food system transformations and explored how the science-policy interface could boost these efforts. Our discussions underscored the importance of integrating diverse knowledge systems and engaging with local communities to design context-specific solutions.

I find that context- and place-based research, more often than not, is truly impactful for the people who are affected by ‘change’ the most. It is something I actively attempt to incorporate into my methodologies and designs.

Ankitha standing at the MGD24 event in front of a sign that says ‘The Montpellier Process’
Ankitha at the MGD24 event ©AnkithaManohar

The Montpellier Global Days 2024 (MGD24) further expanded my perspective on food system transformation. This international event focused on pooling collective intelligence to bridge the gap between science, society, and policy-making.

Expert panels, academia, UN agencies, national and local governments, civil society, the private sector, and early career researchers came together to explore solutions to global food challenges. To be part of individuals who are experts in their disciplines was a daunting yet impactful experience. It left me feeling empowered and I was motivated to incorporate my learnings into my PhD.

During MGD24, I participated in discussions on the role of knowledge in addressing food system challenges and learned from use cases, including those from the Montpellier metropolitan area. The interactive sessions encouraged dialogue and collaboration across sectors, scales, and knowledge systems.

We explored what it would take to move the dial on effective science-policy-society interfaces and identified key conditions and levers for catalysing knowledge integration and use.

The highlight of the MGD24 for me was to be part of the closing panel! I shared insights gleaned from my experiences in Montpellier. I emphasized the importance of a bottom-up approach to food system transformation, highlighting the need to consult with local farmers and communities to address on-the-ground challenges. I also stressed the importance of thinking and acting both locally and globally, recognising the interconnectedness of actions at different scales.

Ankitha giving her closing remarks sitting at a table with two other people
Ankitha giving her closing remarks at the event ©AnkithaManohar

Looking ahead, my experience in Montpellier has inspired me to continue advocating for inclusive and holistic approaches to food system transformation. By pooling collective intelligence and fostering partnerships across sectors and knowledge systems, we can accelerate progress towards sustainable and equitable food systems.

As we move towards the 2024–2033 International Decade of Sciences for Sustainable Development, I am committed to contributing to this important agenda.

Overall, my time in Montpellier was not just about academic learning, but also about personal growth and forging lasting connections with fellow researchers and practitioners. The city’s rich history, vibrant culture, and commitment to sustainability provided an inspiring backdrop for our discussions and collaborations.

I am grateful for the opportunity to have been part of such a transformative experience and look forward to applying the lessons learned to my research and future endeavours.