Researcher in the Spotlight – Deniz Koca

Deniz Koca is an assistant professor at Lund University, Centre for Environmental and Climate Science. His main expertise lies in applied systems analysis, system dynamics modelling and facilitation of stakeholder participatory group modelling process. What is the role of applied systems science in food systems transformation? Read the interview below!

What is currently on top of your research agenda?

My current research focuses on the important role of applied systems science in food systems transformation and advancing the transition to a future sustainable circular bioeconomy. My research is very much applied research, focusing on the co-generation of knowledge with stakeholders and the practical application of that knowledge to solve complex and dynamic real-world problems. To that end, I am also developing capacity-building programmes for public/private professionals in the agri-food sector to ensure the success of food system transformation efforts. One of the projects that I coordinate is called GROW project, funded by EIT Food, where we aim to develop a capacity-building programme in innovation & entrepreneurship, digitalisation, healthy soil, regenerative agriculture etc. to educate/train key actors in the food supply chain across Europe with a special focus on farmers, SMEs and start-ups in the primary production. Similarly, within the FORMAS funded BIOECONOMY Graduate Research School that I coordinate, we aim to bring researchers and PhD students, across faculties/disciplines and research areas, together with non-academic stakeholders in order to identify, carry out and communicate innovative, analytically advanced and yet problem-oriented research and education for a sustainable future circular bioeconomy covering the whole biomass value chains.

Tell us about your latest publication.

In our recently published white paper, together with partners from EIT Food Protein Diversification Think Tank, we outlined the latest innovations in the development of protein sources from plants, algae, insects and cellular agriculture. The white paper provides an outlook to the policymakers and agrifood stakeholders on the current state of technological developments and the potential benefits of protein diversification to business and society. It also identifies the needs and opportunities in research and innovation in this growing strategic sector. As the Vice President of the EIT Food Protein Diversification Think Tank, I am proud to contribute to this white paper and with the systems thinking approach that we adopted, I’m confident to say that globally, increased production and consumption of healthy alternative proteins (to animal-based protein) is one of the key leverage points in transitioning to future sustainable food systems. Protein diversification offers great potential to reduce the devastating environmental and climate impact of industrial livestock production.

What led you to your particular field of research?

My interest in systems thinking, systems analysis and system dynamics modelling began in 1997 when I was introduced to the topic at Lund University International Masters Programme in Environmental Studies and Sustainability Science (LUMES). Since then, I have worked extensively in various transdisciplinary and cross-sectoral research areas. I have initiated, led and performed research projects, in which I analysed, interpreted and modelled complex dynamic environmental and socio-economical systems in a systemic and holistic way, primarily by facilitating stakeholder participatory group modelling workshops. More concisely, my research has focused on identifying cause-effect relationships, feedback and time delays in such dynamic systems for better understanding the complex structures, and ultimately building conceptual and system dynamics models as decision support tools for integrated future scenario analysis and system solutions.

The “food system” is one of such complex systems. Our current food systems have created major global environmental and socioeconomic problems, and the necessary changes required to advance the transitioning for a sustainable food system are shaped by many interlinked factors including but are not limited to e.g. investment decisions, economic incentives and societal goals, patterns of consumer demand, technology, business and governmental actions etc. All of these create a complex and dynamic “food system” with underlying political, and socio-technical/economic sub-systems. The overall solutions in food systems transformation require inter/trans-disciplinary research & education, broad cross-sectoral collaboration across the entire food value chains, but most importantly, the right approaches, tools and methods that applied systems science can provide. It is only with a holistic understanding that we can identify the leverage points for potential solutions in such rapidly evolving, inherent complex food systems we are dealing with. That is why my research has focused more on the food systems transformation over the past years.

What are the implications of your research for society?

The research conducted on food systems transformation with applied systems science, I believe, has profound implications for society. By understanding how various parts of food systems and different sectors interact and how they are affected by environmental, economic, and social factors, we can identify and address the root causes of many existing problems, as well as the leverage points for potential solutions. This will allow us to develop better policies and interventions to improve the food systems that can provide sustainably produced healthy and affordable food for all.

Finally, let´s say you have unlimited research funds; where would your research be five years from now?

If I had unlimited research funds, my research would be focused on capacity building on applied systems science (i.e. systems thinking, systems analysis, system dynamics modelling) for a better understanding of the complex and dynamic food systems transformation. I would use the funds to develop and implement training programs for students and professionals to learn and apply the tools, methodologies and approaches from systems science. In five years, I would hope to have established a network of professionals and students who are well-versed in applying systems analysis and system dynamics modelling to understand and transform complex food systems and have demonstrated the effectiveness of the food systems thinking approach.

Thank you for a very interesting interview, Deniz! We wish you the best of luck and success in your future paths!

(Photo: Deniz Koca)